A Pyrrhic Victory in France

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French students protest proposed pension reform. Guilliaume Horcajuelo / EPA-Corbis

Nicolas Sarkozy may well win his pension battle against the unions, but the French president will have little cause to celebrate. After weeks of strikes, fuel blockades, and street protests, the Senate finally passed his austerity bill late last week, another major legislative step toward raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age at which workers can retire on full pension from 65 to 67. He needs to reassure financial markets that heavily indebted France is serious about reform. But as Sarkozy nears victory in Parliament, France’s unions are determined to keep fighting. The latest polls say a full 69 percent of the public is on their side, and new strikes and protests are scheduled for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6, just before Sarkozy signs the bill into law.

Elsewhere in Europe the belt tighteners are riding high. In Britain, where David Cameron’s coalition government announced spending cuts last week that will mean the loss of 490,000 public-sector jobs over the next four years, almost 60 percent of voters agree the move is necessary, no matter what union leaders say. Emergency austerity measures earlier this year provoked strikes in Greece and Spain, but the protests died down as people resigned themselves to the inevitability that lavish government spending had to stop.

The French agree that pension reform is needed, but can’t stomach Sarkozy’s reform or, importantly, Sarkozy himself. Both are perceived to favor the rich. And so they turn to the streets, to revolution, a tradition as French as “La Marseillaise” and the bare-breasted fighter Marianne. It is a tradition that’s renewed daily—peacefully for the most part, although marginal troublemakers grab disproportionate attention setting cars alight.

Sarkozy has said he hopes to enact more reforms, but he can’t expect much help from the unions. At this point they’re being swept onward by a mighty wave of public support. In the latest BVA survey, he became the most unpopular president in the French pollster’s 30 years of asking the question. In fact, far from acquiescing to demands for fiscal sobriety, France’s unions seem likely to inspire renewed anti-austerity uprisings elsewhere. What that will mean for Europe’s battered economies is another question entirely.

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