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Taking the Streets, French Style

Clémentine Gallot Dec 9

France’s new conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is having a tough time. “Sarko American,” as he dubs himself, rode into power in May promising a “rupture” with the past. He has seen his approval rating dip below 50 percent as he pursues neoliberal free-market reforms that would roll back labor protections and a generous social safety net to give hefty tax breaks to the rich. In November, his government saw a wave of strikes and protests by transport workers, university students, professors, civil servants and even opera singers.

“Sarkozy is trying to destroy the means for people to resist so that he can pass unified reforms,” said Damien Babet, visiting sociologist at the Institute of French Studies at New York University.

A Nov. 13-22 strike of transport workers paralyzed traffic throughout the country, bringing back memories of the 1995 national strike that transport workers ignited and which forced an earlier rightwing government to retreat from a free-market reform package. However, this time the mobilization of these relatively “privileged” workers did not gain broad public support and provoked divisions among the unions themselves. The embattled president was able to claim victory when eight of the transportation unions agreed to open negotiations that are scheduled to continue until mid-December.

“Since 1995 there has been a tendency to fight global struggles against neoliberalism at home, but it has disintegrated slowly since 2002,” Babet said. “Currently, the fact that civil servants protesting for more purchasing power now want to distinguish themselves from the transit workers fighting for their retirement shows that their side is too divided.”

France ’s Color Line

Following the end of the strikes, violence erupted Nov. 26 in Villiers-le-Bel, an impoverished suburb north of Paris, after a pair of youths of Moroccan and Malian origin were killed when their motorbike collided with a police car. Two nights of rioting followed in which a library, a police station and a number of cars were torched and 130 police were injured as disturbances spread as far away as Toulouse before Sarkozy’s government clamped down. The unrest was reminiscent of the three weeks of rioting that took place in the Fall of 2005 following the death of two immigrant youths who were electrocuted while trying to hide from the police in an electrical power substation.

The suburbs (or “banlieues”) have been neglected for decades and were further marginalized in 2005 by Sarkozy when he was France’s tough-minded interior minister.

Speaking on national television Nov. 29, Sarkozy said that although a plan for the banlieues would be unveiled in January, he would not give more money to these areas and would be “more severe with the minority [of those who cause trouble].” The plan will be announced by Secretary of State for Urban Policies Fadela Amara, a cabinet minister of Muslim descent.

During a Nov. 27 talk on Sarkozy at NYU, The New Yorker’s European correspondent Jane Kramer said she found Sarkozy’s current reform plans “contradictory”: “He doesn’t seem to put together a real program against social violence. He has done nothing substantial for the economy or to fight the inequity of the life of immigrants in the banlieues,” she said.

“Social dissatisfaction will grow particularly in the banlieues,” Babet added. “The tensions there can only rise.”