Arc de truculence

Strikes in France this week and next show that support for reform breaks down when it hits home.

The French are at it again: transit strikes and student barricades this week; work stoppages for teachers, hospital workers, and judges next week. Oh yes, the French are all for the reform agenda of their feisty new president, Nicolas Sarkozy – as long as it doesn't affect them personally.

French voters knew what they were getting with Mr. Sarkozy. From the day he started campaigning last year to his election in May, he's talked about "rupture" with an inflexible workforce and overburdened social system.

And who would want more of the same – more decades of unemployment hovering at 10 percent, for instance? More years of ballooning deficits to float a weighty welfare state where 1 in 4 people work for the government? The French don't really want that, and that's why voters gave Sarkozy a strong mandate.

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A large majority of the public, for instance, doesn't support this week's strike by rail, utility, and other workers. They understand Sarkozy's point that decades-old rules and deals that allowed these workers to retire early (some at age 50) are unjustified and costly. They get that rail workers no longer shovel coal into steam engines, that their jobs are no longer comparatively onerous, and therefore, they should not be allowed to collect full pension benefits after only 37.5 years on the job, when most other workers have to wait 40 years.

They understand that, but what about their own cases? Students virtually shut down 35 universities this week because they don't like Sarkozy's plans to give their schools more autonomy. On Nov. 20, judges plan to go on strike over changes to their jurisdictions. They will be joined by teachers, hospital workers, and other government employees who object to planned cuts in the public work force.

Sarkozy is experiencing push back on all fronts because he's pushing on all fronts. That strategy sets him apart from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, whose plan was to proceed step by step. But early on in his administration, Mr. Chirac was hobbled by a three-week strike over the same pension issue and never regained enough footing for anything else.

And so the vigorous new president, instead of sending up one flare, is setting off fireworks: tax cuts, tighter immigration rules, pension reform, and more.

To overcome resistance, he's compromising. Instead of scrapping the inflexible 35-hour workweek, which he decried in his campaign, he's encouraging longer hours by no longer taxing overtime pay. Instead of replacing 1 of every 2 retiring government workers, as he promised, it will be 1 out of 3.

Sarkozy, a lawyer, has an instinct toward compromise, and this endangers serious reform. Will he give away the store in negotiations with this week's strikers, for instance? In truth, he isn't asking for much.

But politics is about the art of compromise.

Sarkozy can perhaps rouse citizens with a one-for-all, all-for-one cheer – a reminder that change in each area adds up to a more competitive and wealthier France.

If that fails, he may have to be satisfied with a series of smaller steps – which is certainly preferable to no steps at all.

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