As if the ride wasn’t getting bumpy enough for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the major transportation unions just announced their intention to strike next Thursday. Trains, subways and airports will all be effected nationwide. The pretext is to protest the government’s efforts to lengthen the contribution for full pension benefits from 40 to 41 years for transport workers. But I think it’s also safe to say that the unions are taking advantage of Sarkozy’s present weakness to try to redefine the balance of power resulting from last fall’s transport strike. That weeklong shutdown took place while Sarkozy was at the height of his popularity and was widely regarded as a net loss for the unions, in part because Sarkozy avoided a confrontational stance, opting instead for dialogue and negotiation.
Next week’s action, like yesterday’s teacher and public sector strike, is scheduled to be a one-day show of force by the unions. The risk, should it be prolonged by wildcat militants eager to pick a fight, is that Sarkozy might find himself backed into a corner. If he backs down, he loses credibility as a reformer; if he fights and loses, he can kiss any hope of passing the rest of his reforms goodby. On the other hand, the unions might very well overplay their hand, driving public opinion (and political capital) back to Sarkozy. Either way, the opening bell of what could be a long, hot summer just rang.