Friday, July 25, 2008

La renaissance française

President Sarkozy is liberating the French economy from the political shackles put on it by the unions. How an unpopular president is able to accomplish this is nothing short of a miracle.
  1. First, by firing off in so many directions at once, Mr Sarkozy has made it difficult for the unions to focus. During the June strikes, for instance, it was unclear what the protests were supposed to be against. Pension reform? Working-time rules? Public-sector job cuts? “His method is to make everyone giddy,” comments one aide. At times, the president has played this game masterfully. When teachers went on strike in May against (modest) job cuts, Mr Sarkozy appeared on television not to calm but to wrong-foot them: he announced a new plan, popular with parents, to guarantee “minimum service” at schools during strikes.
  2. Second, Mr Sarkozy has treated a select number of union leaders as grown-ups, taking them to fine restaurants in Paris and inviting them for talks at the Elysée. As Xavier Bertrand, the labour minister, puts it, “in the past, the government waited for a conflict and then negotiated; today, we talk first.” Mr Sarkozy's direct, inclusive approach goes down well with a group that is more used to disdain from French leaders. When Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, tried to introduce a flexible work contract for the young, he failed even to tell the unions about it first.
  3. Third, if talks lead only to timid results, Mr Sarkozy seems willing to press ahead regardless, relying on public opinion for support. One example concerns working time. After months of talks on labour reform, unions and employers agreed in April to make elections to works councils more open and democratic, but did little to loosen the 35-hour week. So Mr Bertrand announced a new law, passed on July 23rd, to let companies negotiate longer working weeks with union representatives—all but squelching the 35-hour week.

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