Political upheaval in France is not new, and neither is upheaval over reform. But few were expecting the shock result in regional elections in March. The vote sent a shiver through the government and rekindled memories of administrations that had fallen in the wake of unpopular change.
The poll saw the French electorate fire a shot across the bows of the ruling conservative party of Jacques Chirac in mid-term elections – with the opposition socialists and their allies taking control of most regional councils. The vote was immediately taken as a rebuke by citizens enraged over the government’s reform plans. Key among those reforms is, of course, the pension system.
President Chirac reacted quickly to the disaster and put the charismatic and openly ambitious former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkosy into the hot-seat as finance minister. His task, whether openly stated or not, is clear: sort out the mess or the government tumbles.
The 49-year-old has won many over with his zero-tolerance stance on national security and his name has become a byword for action and innovation. Whether he can innovate his way around what is widely seen as a poisoned chalice will surely become one of the most interesting stories in the European political reform landscape. If he succeeds, the keys to the presidential residence may be his. If not, who knows?
But before he gets to occupy the Elysee Palace Sarkosy will have to create new jobs and follow through on his promised “culture of results”.
No-one could underestimate the magnitude of the task ahead. The influential COR, the Conseil d’Orientation des Retraits, the Council for Retirement Orientation, has outlined the strains on the retirement system. The body, which includes MPs, experts and union representatives, says that unemployment, higher than in 2001, is weighing on the retirement system.
People have been voting with their feet. Almost 100,000 people have asked to retire before the statutory retirement age of 60, following January’s reforms, according to union federation CFDT. Under the new decree people can retire at age 56, 57 or 58 if they began work at the age of 14, 15 or 16 respectively.
Chirac will be well aware of the lessons of history. The Juppe government was, at least in part, felled by unrest over pension reform in 1995. It’s not as if there is no knowledge of the risks. Indeed a recent academic study found that pension reform in France since 1993 has been characterised over time by a strategy of avoiding union protests.
Forming his third government, Jean-Pierre Raffarin has acknowledged the French people’s misgivings over the potential loss of their social security safety-net. “Today the French people said it clearly: actions must be more effective, actions must be fairer,” he says.
The new government promises it now has ‘social cohesion’ – along with the shoring up of France’s lacklustre economy – at the heart of its agenda.
But observers wonder how much the new team, which is very similar in size and shape to the last two governments – is committed to innovation and action.
“We were surprised when Chirac said he would retain Jean- Pierre Raffarin as prime minister,” says Marisol Touraine, national secretary for social and welfare policies at the Socialist Party. “And at the same time he was telling us, the French people, that the policy implemented since 2002, was a bad one from the social point of view.”
Chirac has now promised changes and ‘corrections’ - especially to the controversial reduction of the unemployment indemnity or Allocation Specifique de Solidarite, or ASS.
The unpopular ASS, which would curtail the period of time the unemployed are entitled to receive the first of the two available state indemnities, from 27 to 24 months.
Former finance minister Francois Fillon had also thought of cutting the amount after 27 months, Touraine explains. The French left-wing protested - claiming the intended regulations were unfair. The citizens backed this protest, she says.
“This point, which is one of the most important for us, needs to be re-considered,” Touraine says. “Raffarin said in his maiden speech, that he would reconsider the situation but did not say how.”
So, is Sarkosy the man for the job? Time will tell, but whatever the outcome it may well prove to be a fascinating rollercoaster ride.