Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory in France a year ago was interpreted by some as a neoliberal backlash against the left. But he now finds himself the most unpopular president since records began.
Sarkozy promised that those who worked more would earn more. But soaring food and fuel prices have made the cost of living a growing preoccupation for ordinary people – they are working more but inflation means they are earning less.
Sarkozy himself could not have made his contempt for these concerns more flagrant, devoting much of the past six months to a gaudy and very public display of conspicuous consumption with his new wife.
He wants his presidency to break with the way previous governments have been defeated by strikes and street protests. Public sector workers, he argues, must obey the laws of the market and face job cuts and attacks on pensions and the right to strike.
This month he has faced protests and blockades by fishermen protesting at fuel prices and a series of demonstrations by school students, teachers and other public sector workers.
The government has given some ground to fishermen, but remains determined to push ahead with its attacks on other workers.
Only one in two of all public sector workers who retire during the next year will be replaced, resulting in the loss of around 30,000 jobs. The government also wants to make people work an extra year before becoming eligible for a full pension, extending the lifetime of work from 40 to 41 years.
Plans are also underway to force unemployed workers into accepting jobs or face having their benefits cut. Last week a leading member of Sarkozy’s UMP party called for the 35-hour week to be “definitively dismantled”.
On 15 May teachers took part in a day of action against the imposition of job cuts and market reforms. School students and other public sector workers joined demonstrations across France. A week later 700,000 workers from both the public and private sector took part in nationwide strikes and demonstrations against the attacks on pensions.
Further days of action are planned but the government remains bullish about its ability to face them down. Education minister Xavier Darcos claimed that he would push ahead with reform “whatever the size of the demonstrations”.
There is widespread and deep-seated anger against the government’s attacks. Earlier this month an opinion poll revealed that over 60 percent of the population believe a new May 1968 is possible. But what this anger currently lacks is a coordinated focus.
The government won a significant victory against railway workers last year by taking advantage of divisions between rival trade union federations. It is now hoping to weaken another group of workers at the forefront of resistance to neoliberalism since 1995 – teachers.
The response of the Labour-like Socialist Party to this offensive has been particularly lame.
Ségolène Royal, defeated by Sarkozy in the 2007 election, was the party’s most right wing presidential candidate ever. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is now challenging her leadership. He has proclaimed himself “neoliberal and socialist” and wants to shift the party even further to the right.
In this climate Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, has become one of most popular figures on the French left.
Around 8,000 people have taken part in meetings to support his initiative for a new anti-capitalist party, setting up over 250 groups across France.
The months ahead will provide plenty of opportunities for the radical left to turn opposition against Sarkozy into a political weapon capable of resisting his attacks and providing a genuine alternative to an increasingly moribund Socialist Party.