THE strike-weary French have grown used to a day’s worth of infrequent trains, absent teachers, undelivered post and unprinted newspapers. This is the routine whenever unions hold a one-day strike, as they did (again) on October 19th, against the raising of the legal minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 years. But the petrol shortages, blockaded oil depots and schools, jammed roads, burnt cars and sporadic violence this week were of a quite different order. The shift from organised protest towards disorganised rebellion has put Mr Sarkozy’s determination not to back down to its stiffest test yet.
The routine protests this week were mostly peaceful, even festive. Anywhere between 1.1m and 3.5m took to the streets, including leaders of the opposition Socialists, for the sixth day of protests this autumn against pension reform. This approached the previous week’s record turnout, although the strike rate dipped: from 40% to 30% at the national railway, from 19% to 12% among civil servants, and from 18% to 15% at EDF, the energy utility.
But it was not marching protesters or striking train drivers who shifted the atmosphere so abruptly this week. It was the spreading petrol shortages, combined with improvised guerrilla protests: lorry drivers blocking roads in “Operation snail”, lycée students shutting down schools, protesters invading railway tracks and airports and vandals looking for trouble.
This week workers at all 12 of France’s refineries were on strike and many oil depots were blocked, disrupting petrol supplies and prompting motorists into panic-buying. The government’s initial insistence that there were no petrol shortages was shown to be absurd, as drivers toured from station to station in search of fuel, or joined lengthy queues. Jean-Louis Borloo, the environment minister and aspirant prime minister if François Fillon is replaced, finally admitted that almost a third of the country’s 13,000 petrol stations had run out of fuel. Mr Sarkozy ordered the police to lift blockades of oil depots and ensure the resumption of distribution.
At the same time, 379 lycées were disrupted or closed on October 19th by protesting school pupils, who in France have their own unions. Although not directly touched by pension reform, many pupils seem to think that, if 60-year-olds work for two years longer, they will have to wait two more years before they can inherit their jobs. More worrying than economic illiteracy, lycée protests are often used by casseurs, or vandals, as cover for troublemaking. In Lyon 1,300 casseurs, half of them under 18, rioted in the historic centre, torching and overturning vehicles, looting shops and smashing up bus shelters. A courthouse in Nanterre, west of Paris, was vandalised. In Le Mans, a junior high school was burned to a cinder.
Mr Sarkozy declared that he would not let the country be “paralysed” by blockades or unrest. Nor, he said, would he back down on reform, because it was his “duty” to guarantee pensions for future generations. The pension bill has already been passed by the lower house, and voting in the upper house, although delayed this week, should conclude soon. The government is hoping that the French will tire of protesting, and that support for the strikes will ebb. Above all, schools break up on October 22nd for a ten-day half-term—and French unions like their holidays too much to disrupt them with strikes.
Yet if they give up, the unions stand to lose credibility. National leaders, such as Bernard Thibault, of the communist-backed Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s most powerful union, are under pressure from their grass-roots not to cave in. Union bosses were due to meet on October 21st to decide what to do once the upper house votes. Some argue that protests should continue. The two chambers still need to vote on a final version of the bill, probably next week, before it becomes law. In 2006 student-led protests against labour-market reforms forced the government of the day to retreat, even after the bill had been signed into law.
The difficulty for Mr Sarkozy is that pension reform has become a touchstone for general grievances. He and Mr Fillon have tried to explain the need for France to preserve benefits for tomorrow’s pensioners by lengthening working life. He has given some ground to the unions over the detail of the reform. But he is unpopular and distrusted. And he is linked in the popular mind with wealth and big business, an image reinforced by recent blunders in his ministerial team: cigars charged to expenses, a private jet hired by a minister, conflicts of interest tied to Liliane Bettencourt, the billionaire heiress to the L’Oréal empire. By contrasting the plight of “workers” facing two extra years of toil with the high life of the elite, the left has shamelessly whipped up a feeling of injustice about what is, in reality, a rather timid reform.
The turmoil beamed out on French television screens this week could yet begin to turn public opinion, which has so far mostly backed the protests. Although 67% of respondents to one poll this week said they supported the routine strikes and demonstrations, 54% were against the blockade of oil refineries. The government is looking for an offer to make to the unions, unrelated to pension reform, that would allow them to save face. But if the rebellion fails to die down, Mr Sarkozy will be in a tight corner—and his plan to reshuffle the government after pension reform is done will have to be put off even longer.