The pensions row has turned into a referendum on Sarkozy, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
As the French Autumn of Discontent morphs into its second week (more trains, fewer planes, long lines at petrol stations, banlieues kids indulging in a bit of self-administered wealth redistribution in the streets), no one can predict how things will turn out for Nicolas Sarkozy and his embattled government. And yet this should have been the easiest reform of his first term.
The government was looking to score points for realism and for shoring up the pay-as-you-go pensions system. Instead, they have boxed themselves into the kind of standoff the French always used to call, scathingly, la politique à la Thatcher.
The Socialist opposition, hoping to energise grassroots support for their 2012 presidential campaign, encouraged their natural constituents, the teachers' and students' unions, to stoke up anti-Sarkozy resentment in schools and universities. Now they find themselves watching in dismay as the student revolt spirals out of control. If there is a single fatality in these heated confrontations, they will be branded irresponsible, and the same parents who encouraged their children to demonstrate will withdraw every ounce of goodwill and support.
Both sides were taken by surprise. Over the past months, in negotiations quietly undertaken at the Elysée Palace, union leaders had indicated that they understood the pensions quandary. On paper, simple arithmetic sums it up: in 1945, when the scheme was established, eight workers paid for the pension of one retiree. By 1960, they were down to four. Today, it's 1.8, and if nothing changes, in 15 years' time, 1.2 French workers will bear the burden of one pensioner.
The unions were prepared for the usual French face-saving social kabuki: after some pre-planned tactical retreats, a bit of symbolic give and take on implementation, a few exceptions made for women and manual labourers, the bill would have been accepted. Instead, they have been pushed into a hard line stance by their members. The CGT union's Charles Foulard, the oil-and-gas industries' answer to Arthur Scargill, is leading the blockage of Total's oil refineries; he's constantly on radio and television exclaiming that reform is unfair because the French have it too hard already.
Politicians always learn too late, to their cost, that perception is reality. By all practical measures, we French actually live a pretty good life. The social welfare system works, with generous unemployment benefits and tax rebates; the national health system is the one thing no French citizen complains about (this translates into Europe's longest life expectancy and the World Health Organisation's highest score); and public infrastructure spending ensures good services even in problem areas. This we take for granted.
All the same, the strikes have turned into a referendum on Nicolas Sarkozy – not his actual policies, so much as his style. The perception is that he panders to the rich, an unfair one when you consider his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who never paid for any holiday he took in or out of office (Chirac still relies on an array of benefactors, from luxury goods tycoon François Pinault, to the family of the late Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, who pay for his splendid flat by the Louvre).
Sarkozy (whose fortune is the product of selling his family flat for £1.6 million when he was elected in 2007) earned himself, early on, the "bling bling president" tag. Nothing he has done since has shifted the impression that he wants the French to make efforts he will not subject himself and his rich friends to.
The fact is, if the pensions reform fails (for now, the government intends to stand firm, and a parliament vote is expected next week), it won't have been seen off by the unions, but by the Bettencourt scandal. The fight between the l'Oréal heiress and her daughter uncovered casual tax evasion on a large scale, and illegal contributions made to Sarkozy's presidential campaign. The sheer amounts quoted as the saga unfolded – a Seychelles island here, pictures by Matisse and Picasso there – awakened revolutionary feelings not felt in two and a half centuries. Against the spirit of Robespierre, no amount of reason can prevail.
The only hope for the government is an especially French one: at the end of next week, All Saint's Day marks the start of the half-term holidays. It is expected that most young demonstrators will choose to break their revolt to go and enjoy that other French inalienable right, and the fires will dwindle and die.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010