Sarkozy and Thatcher

Submitted by Anon on 22 November, 2007 - 1:27 Author: Gerry Bates

The place of president Nicolas Sarkozy in French politics is similar to that of Margaret Thatcher (Tory prime minister from 1979 to 1994) in British politics in three ways. Sarkozy declares himself out to "liquidate the heritage of May 1968" (the great general strike), just as Thatcher said she would get rid of "socialism". Like Thatcher (the "Iron Lady", "not for turning") Sarkozy talks tough ("we will not concede, and we will not retreat", he said on 20 November), while often quietly being pragmatic.

And, like Thatcher, he is not quite of the old Establishment. His cronies "are not generally from the so-called 'meritocratic' state bourgeoisie: ENA, Grandes Ecoles" (i.e. the traditional political elite of France); rather, they are "heirs of large fortunes or 'self-made men'."

Like Thatcher, he makes a populist appeal to certain sections of the working class. For example, his hallmark claim to stand for "the France that gets up early in the morning" comes from words spoken to him by workers at a factory he visited who complained they had low wages although they had to rise early.

However, Sarkozy is not a free-market fanatic: he has said that the State has "not a right, but a duty" to aid industry. He is "pro-European" where Thatcher was not.

The impression that Sarkozy faces a labour movement much more combative than in Britain is not quite accurate. The average number of strike days, in proportion to workforce, is actually lower in France than in Britain even today, let alone Britain in 1979. (There are many more minority strikes in France than in Britain).

Perhaps because of that, Sarkozy has been able to cultivate some elements of the soft left - for example Fadéla Amara, former leader of the feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises, someone close to the Socialist Party, is in his government - where Thatcher sharply terminated cosy union-government relations.

Sarkozy is out to shackle the unions, as Thatcher did. Maybe also in many steps, as Thatcher did: the first one is a law (coming into effect in January 2008) compelling transport workers to guarantee a "minimum service" even during industrial action.

Privatisation, which Thatcher started in Britain, is already in full swing in France. Sarkozy wants to cut welfare, as in England; thus the current moves to cut pensios for those groups of workers who still retain pre-1993 conditions. A report published on 3 November suggests he will move later to require 41 (or more) years of pension contributions (in place of the current 40) for all workers.

Sarkozy's equivalent of Thatcher's (and Blair's) high-handedness with their Cabinets is a reassertion of the power of the French presidency, reversing the tendency of recent decades for France to drift back to a more parliamentary regime.

He is "restructuring" the state: part of his election appeal was a promise to "clean up" crime-ridden poor suburbs "with a Kärcher" (industrial cleaner). In the current student protests, against a law which is the first step to privatising universities, police have come in to smash up occupations more often than before.

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