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It’s rare to have the political paths and fortunes of two leaders of great nations follow such parallel paths. However, virtually since they came to office that’s just what has happened to U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Both were elected by convincing majorities—Sarkozy in 2007 and Obama in 2008. Both promised their voters significant change to old and outmoded ways of running their countries. Both, despite vigorous attempts to live up to their campaign promises, have found their most urgent efforts often stymied or stalled by political and economic realities plus ferocious opposition by their defeated adversaries. As a result, both have seen their popular support plummet to all-time lows.
In addition, as November begins, both are facing milestone markers in their terms that will signal and perhaps determine how their political futures will play out.
On one side of the Atlantic, weeks of massive street demonstrations plus fuel and transport blockages in France have somewhat calmed down but not gone away. Nominally they have been aimed at stopping government attempts to raise the official retirement age in France from 60 to 62 years old. Little by little, however, they also often have evolved into more widespread opposition to President Sarkozy himself and what his opponents decry as an autocratic governing style.
Although in late October he managed to push the retirement age changes through France’s parliament, the newly passed extensions still face scrutiny by the nation’s Constitutional Council, somewhat akin to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although they should pass that successfully, they are not expected to be firmly locked in as law until Sarkozy officially promulgates them in mid-November.
What will happen then, however, remains unclear.
The government is hoping that, having tried but failed to block the retirement age increase, the bulk of those protesting will concede defeat and let the nation return to normal.
On the other hand, the issue has created such strong and lingering public bitterness that many of the demonstrators—labor unions, student groups and others—have promised to launch new, still uncharted, forms of social disobedience that may further weaken Sarkozy’s chances for re-election when his current presidential term comes to an end in 2012.
On the other side of the ocean, America also has reached a critical presidential turning point with the November 2nd mid-term congressional elections.
Clearly, a loss then of his Democratic party’s slim majority in the House of Representatives would bode ill for President Obama’s ability to push his programs through Congress and seriously weaken his chances for a renewed presidential mandate two years down the line.
This far in advance, however, neither the French nor the American presidential races really are predictable. Leaders who are unpopular today can spring back to favor and victory if they are aided by kindly circumstances, stalwart efforts on their part or voter disappointment with lackluster or error-prone electoral opponents.
At the moment, both Sarkozy and Obama still have substantial portions of their terms remaining and neither has a presidential adversary clearly on the horizon if and when they seek re-election. So, even though both sitting presidents face a tough road ahead, neither can be written off.
What is striking about Sarkozy’s situation is that few serious analysts anywhere in France dispute the desirability of his effort to raise his country’s retirement age from 60 to 62 years.
Fewer still, however, see much likelihood of the nation accepting such change other than reluctantly. Whenever the necessary accompanying sacrifices hit them, everyone finds some reason to object.
The retirement threshold was dropped down to 60 years under the Socialist presidency of François Mitterrand in 1982.
Even though Mitterrand made that change by presidential decree and not by a parliamentary vote, as did Sarkozy, current Socialist party spokesmen and those out demonstrating in the streets in recent weeks in France maintain that it now is an inalienable right. Socialist party leader Martine Aubry even has promised to enact a new law turning back retirement to that age if her party wins the next election in May 2012.
Sarkozy’s government, on the other hand, is facing the spectre of a fast-approaching inability to pay for the burgeoning number of people on its retirement rolls.
Unlike the widespread privately financed retirement plans prevalent in the United States, France has essentially a government-financed retirement system. The justification put forward for pushing back the retirement age to 62 is the fact that the average life span in France has been steadily rising and it should not be considered illogical to ask people who are going to live a lot longer to work a bit longer.
If they don’t, Sarkozy’s government insists, the retirement costs for a government already heavily indebted far beyond the norms laid down by the European Union for all its members will soon push France into the kind of financial meltdown that recently struck Greece.
France already has had some sharp warnings from the European Union about the need to reduce its national debt and spending habits, and the extended retirement age represents a major effort by Sarkozy’s government to comply.
Whether France and the United States will punish either or both of their respective presidents for their efforts if and when, as expected, they run for re-election remains to be seen, however.
Nothing to do but stay tuned.
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