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France not in mood to say vive la revolution

Times Staff Writer

France has been crippled for more than a week by a wave of strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic reforms. Aboard a sort of Noah’s ark of labor unrest has been the typical French mix: public transit workers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, tobacco shop owners, air traffic controllers, fishermen. Even opera stagehands.

On Thursday, nearly half of France’s universities were shut down by protests, and soon lawyers and judges are planning to walk out over their own grievances.

The traffic chaos and street demonstrations stir up memories of all the yesteryears in a France that is fond of revolution. But this time something has changed.

The public has had it.

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Stranded commuters and students missing first-semester exams, among others, are not just frustrated but also angry at those striking in the name of leftist ideology or fighting to preserve special privileges such as retirement on a full pension at age 50.

The public may doubt that Sarkozy can fulfill all of his election promises, but it also appears to be tired of unions tying up the streets. By Thursday, evidence that the unions had run into a determined president and public that stuck behind him was accumulating as many of the major rail unions voted to return to work, thereby easing the transit calamity, even as negotiations go on.

For all the talk about the strength of the French labor movement, only 7% of workers are unionized, a smaller percentage than in the United States. And even in the ranks of those striking, there are now divisions. On Wednesday, some unions were forced to disown saboteurs who set fire to the tracks for high-speed trains, further delaying an already stalled system.

And some students are working against the strike plans of other students.

Take, for example, Julie Coudry.

She is president of the Student Confederation, a national organization that split four years ago from the main student union.

“They were living in the past, fighting the same old ideological fights with the government,” Coudry says. “We think a union should be part of what a university will be in the future, not just there to protect the past. We have to imagine and reinvent our universities. . . . And in France, we have a long way to go.”

At 28, Coudry is an economics major at the Sorbonne, the starting point of the 1968 student uprisings. She has supported herself by working as a barmaid and for trade unions over the last nine years of an education that has been prolonged by leading previous student strikes and involvement in national elections.

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In her signature beret and black turtleneck, she may appear the cinematic version of the radical student leader, circa 1968, but she is not. Rather, her concerns for young people are mostly practical. She wants French universities to prepare them to find a place in the professional world.

She disdains bottle-throwing on the barricades and prefers private meetings like the one she had this week with Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse, who called in a variety of student leaders to urge them not to join protests by transportation workers and civil servants.

In an interview at her office in an edgy neighborhood in northwest Paris, Coudry proudly recalls persuading the main presidential candidates in front of television cameras last spring to support a “third mission” for French universities -- to not only provide education and promote research, but also to prepare students to find employment.

The business world, Coudry argues, disregards university graduates who “don’t know about work, who don’t know about the economy, who don’t know the codes and ethics on the job. We want to change that.”

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Only the top one-fifth of students make it to the elite colleges; the rest are allowed automatic enrollment at other universities, where they face successively tougher exams. Eventually, 40% drop out.

This summer, the government approved a sweeping law that allows universities more autonomy to manage their budgets, recruit staff, design courses, create partnerships with business and seek additional private funding. It also included Coudry’s notion of a third mission.

Although she is not completely satisfied with the new law and does not see herself as a Sarkozy supporter, Coudry also does not support the strikers this time around. Neither does a “silent majority” of university students, she insists.

She was particularly disgusted when militants persisted this week in shutting down a university in Rennes even after a majority of the student body voted against a strike.

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“These are little groups talking, acting against the real interests of the majority,” Coudry says. “The students we represent don’t want to stand in front of metros and stop people from going to work. They want answers about their lives; they want modern universities with better programs and new science labs. . . . Have you seen ours? They’re cold and dark and have a lot of people with long beards. What is going to be changed for our future by these blockages?”

France’s “Black November” of rolling strikes and general turmoil at least partly replays the perennial French cycle of a government seeking change, unions taking to the streets, the public rallying around the unions, and the government caving. This has guided national policy for decades: in 1968; during wide-ranging strikes in 1995; and again in 2005 during a student revolt, which was led by, among others, Coudry, and which crushed then-President Jacques Chirac’s attempts to change labor laws.

Sarkozy was elected in May on a promise that he would force a “rupture” with the past and spur economic growth in France.

But that grand vision boils down to dozens of specific reforms, and the president has picked as one of the first a fight over special pensions that have allowed railway workers and a select group of others to retire after 37 1/2 years, or as young as 50. These pensions cost the government more than $10 billion a year.

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Although Sarkozy has expressed willingness to meet, negotiate with and even have long, informal dinners with trade union leaders, he has made it clear that he will insist on workers paying into the pension system for at least 40 years.

In a speech this week, he emphasized that he intended to remain firm, but said he was not out for a showdown: “I do not want a winner or a loser.”

And Thursday, although commuters were still too grumpy to start celebrating, it looked like the worst of the rail strike was behind them. (Air France pilots, however, were threatening to stay off the job starting Saturday.)

Most unions at the state-owned national railroad and many metro and bus drivers announced they would wind down protests over the weekend even as they continued to press their agenda at the negotiating tables. But a leftist union warned that the strike was merely suspended and that if talks didn’t go their way, they would walk again around the December holidays.

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The appearance, at least, of being open to dialogue has helped Sarkozy win public support, according to recent polls. And to the extent that he received a mandate for reform during the election, it has been strengthened by the strikes.

Since October, when the periodic strikes began, support for the president’s reform efforts has gone up while support for strikes has gone down, says Pierre Giacometti, an analyst with the polling firm Ipsos.

As of last weekend, 66% of the French, a significant increase from the previous weekend, were behind Sarkozy’s pension changes, an Ipsos poll showed. Only a third expressed general support for the strikes.

Giacometti depicts recent union actions as a continuation of the election struggle. Sarkozy defeated Socialist Segolene Royal, who had vowed not to touch the special pensions, in a runoff election.

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“We are convinced that these strikes are run by a very political movement of student extremists and trade unionists out for a third round of the election,” Giacometti says.

“Sarkozy already won, but some political vehicles want to fight him again in the streets. But the public doesn’t want another battle.”

In fact, appearances this time around don’t capture a profound change beneath the surface.

At an anti-strike march last weekend of about 10,000 people, many seemed as much pro-Sarkozy as against a tradition of governing in France that allows presidents and Parliaments to be trumped by unionists inflicting distress on the public.

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Guy Lacombe says he doesn’t usually join public marches but, well, he needs to march to end the relentless marching.

“If France is known for its many strikes, we want that to change,” says Lacombe, who boasts that he is still working at 64.

“We want the French mentality to change, because it’s always the same people who go on strike while everybody else has to work.”

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.


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