November 23, 2007

Sarkozy's Triumph

New French President Nicolas Sarkozy has won an impressive and historic victory over the French unionists. After announcing his economic reforms, union activists tried to invoke 40 years of successive victories for French socialism by once again rushing to the barricades and shutting down public transportation in a massive strike. Days later, faced with unprecedented public anger, the strikers have returned to work in defeat:

Traffic on French trains, subways and buses started returning to normal Friday after striking transport workers ended a nine-day walkout over President Nicolas Sarkozy's reforms.

Pockets of resistance remained, and restoring full service to the nationwide rail service and public transport in Paris and other cities was expected to take days.

But the victory for Sarkozy was clear as workers voted on Thursday to end the strike after talks opened on his plan to end special retirement privileges for half a million train drivers and other state employees.

The strikers thought they could replicate the spirit of 1968, when a popular uprising cemented Socialism as the guiding light of the nation. However, after almost 40 years of socialism, the French have tired of the slogans and of being held hostage to the unions. They want a new direction for their economic structure -- and they have little patience for the extortive techniques of the modern Socialists.

The Los Angeles Times captures the mood:

The public has had it.

Stranded commuters and students missing first-semester exams, among others, are not just frustrated but also angry at those striking in the name of leftist ideology or fighting to preserve special privileges such as retirement on a full pension at age 50.

The public may doubt that Sarkozy can fulfill all of his election promises, but it also appears to be tired of unions tying up the streets.By Thursday, evidence that the unions had run into a determined president and public that stuck behind him was accumulating as many of the major rail unions voted to return to work, thereby easing the transit calamity, even as negotiations go on.

For all the talk about the strength of the French labor movement, only 7% of workers are unionized, a smaller percentage than in the United States. And even in the ranks of those striking, there are now divisions. On Wednesday, some unions were forced to disown saboteurs who set fire to the tracks for high-speed trains, further delaying an already stalled system.

Even the core of the old movement -- the universities -- has begun to crumble. Most students have other aspirations beyond perpetual petulance. They have belatedly discovered that the French business establishment completely mistrusts them, and considers university graduates as wholly unprepared for employment. They have no prospects after college under the current system, and they want that system changed. Students have little enthusiasm for using their universities as another front for the trade unions; they want a real education instead.

Sarkozy didn't win his election in a vacuum. The French people want significant change, even if they balk somewhat at the bill. The unionists completely ignored this rather obvious shift in the wind and tried to roll back the calendar 40 years. They exposed themselves as out-of-touch anachronisms of that earlier age. They want to continue to play as radicals, while France wants to get back to business.


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