In October 1995, French public-sector workers responded to Alain Juppé's proposed reform of the welfare state with mass strikes; in December, the transportation workers joined them, paralyzing the French economy until Mr. Juppé's proposals were withdrawn.
The leader of the railway strike, Bernard Thibault, thus became something of a hero to French unions and communists. [The Communists are staunch supporters of generous pension packages, especially for state employees.] In 1999, Mr. Thibault became head of the CGT [Confederation Generale du Travail, roughly the French AFL], presumably on the strength of his earlier victory.
Now it is Mr. Thibault who is the most outspoken opponent of Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed pension reforms. The parallels with Arthur Scargill, British labour's hero after his National Union of Miners soundly defeated Edward Heath's government, seem clear.
Mr. Sarkozy's challenge is less intimidating than that faced by Margaret Thatcher in the government's 1979 rematch against NUM, but subtler. The wreckage of the British economy in the 1970's had destroyed Mr. Scargill's moral authority, but Mrs. Thatcher still had a difficult tactical problem to face. France today is comparatively healthy, and Mr. Sarkozy's task is to maintain popular support.
If the French people feel that Mr. Sarkozy's proposals are reasonable, they will blame the discomfort and inconvenience they are about to experience on the unions. But if the French government overplays its hand, it will lose credibility with every cancelled train until these reforms, like those of 1995, are discarded.