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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le pouvoir d’achat au coeur de la mobilisation

by Grégory Marin

Fall in Purchasing Power Fuels Wave of French Protests

Translated Friday 16 November 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

Labor movement. Not just protesting pension reform, the next few days of strikes throughout France, beginning on Nov. 14, could hinge on the the demand for greater purchasing power.

The French may be waking up. They have had six months to judge Nicolas Sarkozy’s initial policy measures. Many have been disappointed by the French president, whose team has depended on the big vote he received in the second round of the presidential elections (53.06%) to legitimize his actions. “The French voted for reforms, and we’re going to reform!” cried Prime Minister François Fillon euphorically on May 14, at the first national council of Sarkozy’s UMP party, after the May 6 election. Purchasing power was then presented by the Elysée (the equivalent in France of the White House or No. 10 Downing Street) as the “priority of priorities” for the head of state.

« A guaranteed minimum wage »

Since he was elected, the French president has lost no opportunity to ride this hobby horse: talking to factory workers and hospital workers, to rail workers and farmers, and most recently, to Atlantic coast fishermen. Nicolas Sarkozy promised the fishermen “a guaranteed minimum wage” which could amount to a kind of indirect subsidy, but which was condemned by the European Commission (see l’Humanité, November 8) because it violates the principle – which Sarkozy himself upholds – of free and undistorted competition. So the measure will certainly never come into effect, but in front of the cameras, the head of state played his self-proclaimed role as the “pay slip” president.

But the magic no longer works today. The French are desperately examining their pay slips, and they see that nothing has changed. The honeymoon is over. Even the daily paper Le Parisien, in yesterday’s edition, was forced to ask, under Ludovic Vigogne’s byline, “Whatever became of the purchasing power candidate?”. Le Parisien published a CSA opinion poll showing that purchasing power has become the number one concern for 48% of the French. Until recently (the CSA polling company asked the same question in October 2005 – editor’s note), the French said health care was their number one priority, and purchasing power was only number three on their list of concerns.

In the meantime, as a presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy built up great expectations by pretending that he wanted to be “the purchasing power president.” In Ensemble, the book written for his election campaign, Sarkozy, then president of the UMP party, put forward this goal: “The target of the policies that I am proposing is not to keep purchasing power stable, it is to increase it." That target has been missed. According to the CSA, 71% of those polled consider the government’s measures to have been “inefficient.”

Neither the tax package, with its 15 billion euros in tax reductions for the richest people, nor the traditional right-wing recipe of reducing employer and employee social security contributions, nor yet the reform of the Galland law on supermarket products – which will strangle suppliers – will make it possible to increase purchasing power, according to those polled. “It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the French see no difference in the contents of their wallets,” the Le Parisien journalist noted ironically.

Other reforms than those put forward by France’s “omni-president” are possible. We could “increase the minimum wage and minimum welfare benefits, and increase the salaries of public workers...” as the French Communist Party (PCF) had proposed during the election campaign. Public sector workers, who are to strike on November 20, will undoubtedly take up these demands, according to the PCF, just as rail and energy sector workers will add changing “public company wage policies” (which the CGT trade union condemns as “wholly inadequate”) to their slogan of “defending special retirement plans” when they strike on November 14.

In a country where over two million employees earn no more than 1005 euros a month net (the guaranteed minimum wage, which remains base wage), that is to say, barely more than the 817-euro poverty threshold as calculated by the official statistics bureau (INSEE), the labor movement could take up the demand for increasing purchasing power.

In an interview with Le Parisien, Robert Rochefort, the director of the Research Center for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions, predicted that “If the labor movement ever gels, it will be around the demand for more purchasing power.”

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