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Bonjour Paris: Sarkozy’s new cabinet

November 20th, 2010 No comments

In this week’s Bonjour Paris, a great resource, I write a piece analyzing French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s new cabinet after the reshuffling. It talks about changes, Prime Minister François Fillon, the French economy, Bettencourt scandal, Sarkozy’s 10 big challenges for the remainder of his administration and 2011 Senate elections and 2012 presidential election. Excerpts below.

Just an FYI: there are strikes planned for Nov. 23 against the now lost-cause of retirement reform, but they are not expected to cause much disruption. Nonetheless I will update my blog Nov. 22 with any relevant information.

As promised, President Nicolas Sarkozy finally carried out the long-awaited reshuffling of his cabinet. This is a traditional move by French presidents during their administrations, regarded as an effort to regain popularity and credibility after facing approval-rating problems. Mr. Sarkozy has certainly had those.

The Economist cites a poll by Ifop that puts Sarkozy’s approval rating at 36% and that of Prime Minister François Fillon at 55%. This is one principal reason Fillon was kept in office – defying the modern trend of presidents changing prime ministers once or twice per administration. In fact, as the same article notes: “If he keeps his job until 2012, M. Fillon will become the first prime minister in modern times to have survived a president’s entire term.” This is due in part because “his calm, reassuring style makes him the antidote to the hyperkinetic president.”

So the fact that Fillon stayed on makes this both an uneventful reshuffling and an exceptional one. You can see a group photograph and learn the names of all cabinet members on the Elysée website here. You can also read coverage of it in the New York Times. Some of the most notable changes come at Defense Minister (old: Hervé Morin; new: Alain Juppé) and Foreign Minister (old: Bernard Kouchner; new: Michèle Alliot-Marie). Overall, it is a government that is more right of center, and one of the most unsurprising changes was at Budget Minister, where François Baroin replaced Eric Woerth. Woerth had been entangled in the Bettencourt scandal. But Nicolas Sarkozy supported him fully in a speech to France about his reshuffling.

Sarkozy will face 10 big challenges during the second half of his term, according to weekly Le Point: strengthening his UMP party unity for 2012; regaining approval ratings; keeping the French Senate to the right (Senatorial elections are in September 2011 and could swing left); reforming fiscal policy; financing aid for the elderly; supporting employment; improving France’s image abroad; getting support from students and the youth with convincing plans; and mastering the internet.

For more information, The Economist has quality coverage of this event. France 24 also covers it.

The challenge now is implementing further reforms – on the heels of the unpopular retirement pension reform now law – to improve the French economy while remaining popular enough to have a chance at reelection in 2012. But there are already many candidates from several parties waiting in the wings, most notably IMF head and Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former Prime Minister conservative Dominique de Villepin.

France still under strike tension with increasing violence

October 21st, 2010 3 comments

Environ 1 200 personnes ont convergé vers la Guillotière. Certaines en ont profité pour se défouler / Stéphane Guiochon (Le Progrès)

So “la révolution” continues. More like an increasingly violent rebellion lead by stubborn individuals who do not seem to understand the principles of economics. But la vie continue, and the government will eventually win. I certainly understand frustration with Sarkozy and his administration, as they have not been exactly stragetic in their communications, and financial corruption within undermines their image (like l’affaire Bettencourt, etc.) but the underlying truth is that retirement reform is needed, and 62 is quite a modest start. Here is a guide about how the reform will likely affect you.

President Sarkozy is still planning on facilitating the labor market to boost employment, so those concerned with unemployment are right to raise their voices, but they should not be disrupting the economic activity and well-being of the country; there are other means of communication than provocation in the street and taking the country hostage. For now, here is an update on the situation…

Violent incidents continue between protesters and police in Lyon’s downtown Presqu’île district, and you can see more coverage of this here and here by the local Lyon newspaper Le Progrès. The TCL public transport system is still shut down in the downtown area, for security measures. According to a Lyon Le Progrès poll, 65% of respondents think that the strike movement will not end soon. You can see pictures of the Lyon action here.

Meanwhile in Marseille, the airport was blocked this morning by strikers in addition to other disturbances throughout the city (public transport and ports blocked, garbage not collected…pictures from Marseille courtesy of BBC.) This action and others have disrupted daily life for many French, and even Lady Gaga has decided to postpone her Paris shows from Oct. 22-23 to Dec. 19-20. On the Paris RER suburban rail network, there were spontaneous disruptions throughout Thursday despite overall improvements on the RATP public transport system (with some disruptions, look under “traffic”) and the SNCF national railway system (though there are still delays). Fuel shortages still persist, with over 25% of gas stations empty, almost 2000 more short on products and this could disrupt Toussaint (All Saints) vacation weekend Nov. 1. But the situation is gradually improving with government forces intervening to gain access to fuel depots.

Meanwhile, national buffoon and desparately in need of a haircut, Bernard Thibault (leader of the CGT union) has called for a new day of strikes next week. They are planning to announce the 1st day for next week, either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and the 2nd day of strikes would be either Saturday Oct. 30 or Sat. Nov. 6. Now they’re striking on the weekends, that’s just great. If they strike on the holiday weekend, there just might be an insurrection against the SNCF.

Students, both university and high school, are becoming increasingly involved in the strikes and demonstrations (and violence), with hundreds of schools blockaded throughout the country and up to 10 universities blocked as well.

What is happening in the government?

They are trying to accelerate the reform currently being debated in the Senate, with the text to be reviewed by Friday evening, 254 amendments awaiting validation at the time of publication, and a commission of 7 National Assembly Deputies and 7 Senators, to vote on the entirety by next Thursday Oct. 28th at the latest. They have shown a willingness to discuss certain measures, notably a point system for pensions, to please unions like the CFDT, but this does not satisfy everyone.

Sarkozy remains firmly opposed to violent demonstrators, saying “they will not have the last word” and almost 2000 have been arrested since Oct. 12.

The New York Times covers this story well.

I’ll keep you updated.

French reform likely to pass despite threat of ongoing strikes

September 24th, 2010 No comments

In the wake of the second round of strikes on Sep. 23 after Sep. 7, unions are calling for continued protest against French government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and 65 to 67 for full pension access, among other details in a large, long-overdue reform of the retirement and pension system.

Labor Minister Eric Woerth said that the strike movement was not as big on Sep. 23 and was in effect waning. Of course there was much divergence on analysis of participation, between 1 and 3 million protesting (from police estimates to union estimates). This is often the case.

As the reform text will most likely be passed in the Senate Oct. 5, after having already been approved by the Assemblée Nationale, most French people realize that these protests will not change the government’s core policy proposals. In a Figaro poll, nearly 85% of people out of more than 31,000 said that the “retirement reform would come to fruition despite the strikes and protests”.

But the left is not backing down and Socialist Party head and Lille mayor Martine Aubry has vowed that if the Socialists win the presidency in 2012, they will bring retirement back to 60. For now, the unions are speaking about October strikes possibly affecting weekend traffic. They do not want to give up just yet.

We’ll see how this plays out. In the event of continued strikes, stay tuned to American Expat in France.

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