FEARS of an explosion of violence on New Year’s Eve have forced President Nicolas Sarkozy to abandon an education reform that was considered one of the cornerstones of his government’s programme after it prompted angry protests from students.
Sarkozy, 53, has often mocked his predecessors for backtracking on reforms after street protests. His volte-face last week after noisy demonstrations by schoolchildren exposed him to ridicule as well as baffling his supporters.
It emerged that Sarkozy feared the protests would spill over into Christmas and the new year, spiralling into a dangerous Europe-wide student uprising inspired by the scenes of mayhem in Greece, where protests continued last week.
“We don’t want a European May ’68 in the middle of Christmas,” Sarkozy told his ministers in a reference to protests four decades ago that led to the collapse of General Charles de Gaulle’s government in 1969.
Sarkozy also worries that celebrations on New Year’s Eve could erupt into rioting similar to the disturbances that set immigrant suburbs ablaze in France three years ago.
“Things are heating up everywhere in Europe, in Greece, but also in Spain, Italy and even in France. The slogan of the Greek students about ‘the €600 generation’ could easily catch on here,” he said, referring to complaints by Greek students about being unable to find jobs paying more than €600 (£557) a month.
The backsliding on reforms is part of a wider shift by “Sarko” since the global financial crisis resurrected lingering French doubts about capitalism. Having come to power on a platform of “work more to earn more”, the hyperactive French leader has lurched leftwards now that even America has lost some of its appetite for the free market.
On Monday he abandoned a long-standing promise to allow Sunday shopping. Opposition to the idea of longer working hours has grown, particularly since the perceived failure of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model under which Britain upheld hard work as the secret of economic success.
Sarkozy no longer dares to single out Britain as the path for France to follow. France may be hurting, but the media, with more than a hint of schadenfreude, are full of tales of misery in Britain, from the collapse of Woolworths to the City’s legion of unemployed.
The government claimed that the education reform, which was intended to improve the performance of high schools by overhauling the curriculum, was being postponed until next year rather than being dumped. Yet the move, which followed similar protests from university students over plans to give universities more autonomy in managing their budgets, was seen as the first big retreat by Sarkozy since he took office last year.
Despite the government’s backdown, the protests continued and schoolchildren blocked railway lines and fought running battles with police on Thursday. Several protesters were arrested after clashes in Lyons, where a car was burnt and five police were injured.