French President Nicolas Sarkozy's sinking popularity continues to be battered, with a new nationwide protest expected to send more than 1 million angry marchers into the streets this weekend, and another demonstration already called for Tuesday. The protests target Sarkozy’s plan to increase France’s retirement age from 60 to 62 and to guarantee full pensions at age 67, up from 65. Most agree reform is necessary, but the proposals have raised French hackles, and a run of government money-and-influence scandals through the spring and summer has stoked public anger and bolstered critics who accuse the president of favoring the rich.
The rallies are a magnet for anti-Sarkozy grievances, but one critical change, the real nightmare scenario for Sarkozy, is new: High school students, who won't retire until at least 2058, have joined the battle en masse. They helped make last Tuesday's march the biggest and liveliest yet, with estimates ranging from 1.2 million to 3.5 million protesters. They blockaded hundreds of schools Thursday and again Friday, and kept on marching, by the thousands, against Sarkozy, whose approval numbers have been abysmal – as low as 26.
Fresh-faced high schoolers are a force French politicians dread, even on an issue as unlikely as pensions. Their stamina is formidable, and in this economy, when salaried employees cannot afford limitless strikes and marches, and even college kids hesitate, they can stay the course. As union leader Jean-Claude Mailly likes to say, “High schoolers are like toothpaste: Once they're out, you don't know how to get them back in.”
Sarkozy's administration rushed the reform bill through, hoping to discourage opponents and deflate resistance; the lower house passed the measure in September and the Senate is due to endorse it next Wednesday. But by joining the protests, high schoolers can give resistance a second wind. At last Tuesday's rally – the fourth since Sept. 7, but the first real all-ages affair – the chants were more energetic and there were new, edgier slogans. Even the pace seemed a little quicker than at previous demonstrations. The smell of firecrackers and the odd cloud of pot smoke mingled with the scent of kebab and French fries that wafted over protesters on the Place de la Bastille, where the event culminated.
But students also inject unpredictability. They are potentially a public relations disaster, raising the risk of costly police blunders – a 16 year-old boy was shot in the face with a rubber bullet Thursday and could lose an eye. French news reports were quick to recall the case of Malik Oussekine, 22, a student protester who died after being beaten by police in 1986.
Since the well-known May 1968 uprising, students repeatedly have forced the hand of French governments. In 2006, high school and university students led a six-week nationwide slowdown that overturned a youth jobs' bill that had already been approved by both houses. The defeat effectively ended the presidential aspirations of then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. And Sarkozy himself caved to high schoolers in 2008 on school reform. Their signature chant this week, “Sarko, you're screwed! The youth is in the streets!” hails from experience.
The president’s pension plan is far from perfect, though not necessarily for reasons advanced by the youngest protesters. High schoolers, for instance, worry that keeping older workers in jobs longer will deprive them of employment after college. It is the same sort of thinking – that labor is a pie to be shared – that ushered in France's doomed 35-hour workweek a decade ago. In fact, Sarkozy's reform, typically for him, is less ambitious than some French specialists would like. It won't balance the pension system until 2018, and new reforms will be necessary soon after that to keep it balanced and finance future payouts.
The moves are tweaks, not an overhaul. And the tweaks are selective - focusing on age, but not on the amount employees and employers pay into the system, nor the amount retirees cash out. Both choices are tactical. Sarkozy refuses to “be the president who raises taxes.” Further, retirees, and those nearing retirement, are key Sarkozy constituencies. The single-mindedness of Sarkozy's plan tends to reinforce the popular view that it is unfair.
But there is an urgent need to reform the nation’s pension system. And Sarkozy has staked too much on this particular bill to back down now. His 2012 reelection hopes rest on his credibility as a reformer. Raising the retirement age to 62 is meant to reassure financial markets abroad that France is serious about deficit discipline. Sarkozy takes over the G20 presidency next month, with ambitions for tough global monetary talks. So retreating at home on pensions – and at the prodding of teenagers – could prompt a reaction of, well, LOL.