"I have the feeling that the government is practically challenging us to strike," says François Chérèque of the leftist Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT). And according to Bernard Thibault, head of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which is closely aligned with the French Communist Party: "They want to use the conflict to set an example. At stake is the question of whether France's unions will continue to have a say in economic reforms in the future."
This is no exaggeration. For Sarkozy, who wants to prepare the nation for the rigors of globalization, the conflict has great symbolic value. Just as former US President Ronald Reagan turned a dispute over benefits for government air traffic controllers into a showdown, the French president hopes to use his handling of the current conflicts as proof of his assertiveness. And like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who acquired the nickname "Iron Lady" when she forced trade unions to their knees in the 1980s, Sarkozy wants to establish himself as a fearless reformer in a republic that has long defied reform.
Seeing It Through to the End
The idea that he could end up a paper tiger like his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who eventually capitulated after a series of tough battles over pension reform, is a nightmare scenario for Sarkozy. "I will not give in," he barked at an employee who had openly threatened him with the "pressure of the street" during a visit to the Saint-Denis railroad depot. "This blackmail won't work with me," the president hissed. His route is already mapped out. "I will see it through to the end," says Sarkozy, "even if it means losing popularity."