Sarkozy gets twitchy as French rise up against austerity

Saturday, June 12, 2010
By Paul Martin

Matthew Campbell
June 13, 2010

THE Germans are battening down the hatches and the British are reefing their sails. Politicians from Portugal to Italy have announced a wave of austerity measures to weather the worst economic and political storms in the history of the European Union.

In France they are thinking of fun summer holidays; the last refuge of the long lunch, for the time being at least, has eliminated la rigueur, or austerity, from its lexicon.

A newspaper cartoon captured the French exception: it showed a British worker with empty pockets saying: “In English, rigueur is ‘austerity’.” A German worker says, “In German, rigueur is ‘Sparpaket’.” Next to him, President Nicolas Sarkozy raises a glass, announcing: “In French, we don’t say rigueur.”

It is not that the French, Europe’s laureates of leisure, are somehow immune from the crisis. Bookshops are full of doom-laden titles such as Yesterday Crisis, Tomorrow War.

“If nothing is done to bring down the debt, the French will have to spend the whole of the next decade paying for the follies of the last one,” warned Jacques Attali, a prominent economist and author of Will We All Be Ruined in 10 Years?

François Fillon, the prime minister, who was rebuked two years ago by Sarkozy for having had the temerity to suggest that France was on the verge of bankruptcy, seems to agree.

He announced a plan yesterday to cut public spending by £37.5 billion over the next three years in order to save France from the risk of having its debt downgraded.

While other Europeans act, the French have confirmed at least one national stereotype: they are contenting themselves with talk. Fillon’s cuts must first be debated by parliament and whatever is agreed is unlikely to be an austerity package.

Sarkozy knows that “the R word” would infuriate a workforce already mobilised to protect “accrued rights” won over decades at the barricades.

In a country which beheaded its leaders two centuries ago and where street protests have a record of bringing down governments, the president, once a vociferous proponent of “rupture” with bad old habits of the past, is living in fear.

“From one austerity package to the next, we risk killing off the recovery,” he told a group of his party’s MPs while explaining his allergy to austerity.

On Tuesday hundreds of thousands of workers are expected to take to the streets in protest against government plans, expected to be announced on Wednesday, to reform the pension system. The retirement age is forecast to be raised beyond 60, possibly to 63.

The government has also announced a freeze on new spending as part of an effort to bring the budget deficit to within 3% of GDP — the limit set by the EU — by 2013; last week it began selling off hundreds of unwanted government buildings, including a prison in Lyons, to help build up the state’s coffers.

It knows, however, that any announcement of deeper cuts could prompt an even greater explosion of anger as the perception takes hold that banks and “casino capitalism” have gone unpunished while ordinary people are suffering.

“It is not the strong shoulders but the weak that are having to shoulder the burden,” said Michael Sommer, the German union leader. “Those who caused the crisis in the first place are not being involved at all.”

It is not only the French who are resisting la rigueur. All over Europe unions are fighting back: yesterday, thousands of German workers took to the streets in anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s budget cuts.

Thousands have marched through Lisbon against the government’s austerity package. Spain is protesting as well: its civil servants last week staged their first strike for decades. On Thursday, Greek rail workers walked off the job to protest at government plans to sell a 49% stake in the loss-making state railway company.

There are fears that angry protests could flare out of control as they have in Athens and Paris.

In normally placid Sweden last week, dozens of youths ran amok in an immigrant suburb blighted by high unemployment. In two nights of rioting, they set fire to several cars, attacked a police station and burnt down a school building.

Some countries seem to have accepted the need for new budgetary restraints: elections in Holland last week were won by austerity-minded liberals. But the French, with their free-spending, live-for-today philosophy, have never shown any such interest.

They have been more sympathetic to the spendthrift Greeks, their Mediterranean soulmates, than to the fiscally prudent Germans and this has put enormous pressure on the so-called Franco-German “motor” that is considered to be so essential for getting things done in the EU.

So tense have relations become between Sarkozy and Merkel that they could not even agree which of them was to blame for postponing until tomorrow a dinner they were supposed to have held last Monday night.

Sarkozy has tried to show France is serious, suggesting amending the EU constitution to make it illegal for governments not to balance their budgets. But he was advised that such a change would never attract the necessary votes.

Fillon, for his part, seems determined to restore fiscal sanity. The days were over, he said, when governments could go on borrowing indefinitely on the understanding that their statehood was an “absolute guarantee”.

“We must break with this vicious circle,” he said. Even if, he seemed to suggest, that meant a bit of la rigueur.

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