Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sarkozy in Europe.

Sarkozy takes office today. Curiously, despite the repression meted out to protesters, he has taken what some see as a conciliatory tack - trying to draft the union leaders into helping elaborate his policies, and bringing PS leaders into his cabinet. Obviously, the Socialists that Sarkozy wants to work with are on the right of the party, and most notable is the offer of Bernard Kouchner to be the foreign minister, reflecting the likely pro-US, 'interventionist' stance under this administration (it isn't as if France has been idling away on the sidelines, though, is it?). However, I suspect something more savvy is afoot. Sarkozy knows that he doesn't have a popular base for his policies, and that French workers - the people he needs to coopt into his liquidation of May 1968 - overwhelmingly didn't support him in this election. So, flattery and negotiations are a smart move. Union leaders have indicated some willingness to negotiate changes, provided they are implemented in a suitable gradual fashion - although it is by no means clear that French workers will simply accept this.

Alex Callinicos takes a look at the impact of Sarkozy's victory across Europe.

The 2005 German federal elections revealed a lack of popular support for both major political parties – the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, which are equally committed to neoliberalism.

They were forced into a “grand coalition” government that has found it very hard to agree on significant free market “reforms”, let alone to implement them.

In Italy, big business hoped that Romano Prodi’s centre left coalition, elected about a year ago, would be a more a reliable agent of economic restructuring than the right under Silvio Berlusconi’s erratic leadership.

But Prodi’s government has been bedevilled by its narrow parliamentary majority and internal divisions.

What happens in France is likely to have a decisive effect on whether this continent-wide stalemate is broken.

The last major attempt to push through neoliberal measures in France was in 1995. It provoked a huge public sector strike that was the first in a series of social explosions that have stalled such plans.

These have included the teachers’ strikes over pensions in May 2003 and last year’s student revolt against the CPE law that attacked the employment rights of young workers.

If Sarkozy succeeds in overcoming such resistance and forcing through his programme of free market reforms, his victory will have reverberations far beyond France’s borders.

Highlighting the difficulties in this, and the narrowness of Sarkozy's base, Callinicos notes that Sarkozy's demagogy on migrants hasn't made as much impact on public opinion as one might have expected. Further, Sarkozy's tendencies toward 'economic nationalism' and state-led interventionism will tend to undermine his credentials among European leaders as an economic liberal. He was enough of an opportunist to distance himself from the CPE at the last minute. Yet, on the crucial issue of transferring wealth to the capitalist class, there is no doubt as to Sarkozy's aim, which he is confident and ruthless enough to pursue. He hasn't exactly been a shrinking violet on any of his policies, least of all that of rolling back labour rights. If Sarkozy could break the resistance of the powerful French left, "[t]his would break the European stalemate to the right’s advantage":

But winning an election isn’t enough to achieve such a shift in the balance of class forces. It took Thatcher the best part of her first two administrations (1979-87) to bring this change about in Britain.

There was nothing at all inevitable about her victory. The same is true in Sarkozy’s case. He faces the most combative social movements in Europe that have seen off governments of both right and left.

The real test in the coming years is whether these movements can find the powers of resistance and the strong and coherent political leadership they need to beat Sarkozy.