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In London’s Times, Rosemary Righter overviews Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic reform programme:

"In a few weeks this summer, in volley after legislative volley, he has taken aim at some of the most sacred cows in French social and economic life. If he keeps up this pace, he will indeed change the face of France.

The keystone is a law making it easier to set up in business, cutting red tape, freeing up the commercial sector by allowing retailers to negotiate directly with suppliers – which, incredibly, French law proscribed – and creating an independent competition authority. More flexible job contracts have been introduced to free up the labour market, and benefits curbed for jobseekers who reject more than two “reasonable” offers of work.

To tackle the huge pensions deficit, retirement age is to be raised by a year – explosive in a country where successive governments failed even to abolish unfair pension privileges for public sector workers. Sarkozy succeeded only after toughing out a nine-day transport strike. He has risked student mayhem by allowing universities more freedom not just to raise private research capital, but to choose which students to admit. He has even announced the privatisation of the ports, risking a French rerun of the British dock strikes. Sarkozy has also taken aim at the structure of the State. He is (cautiously) trimming the bureaucracy and (boldly) overhauling the military by axeing bases, cutting its strength by a fifth and shifting spending from support services to the front line – an open challenge to hardcore Gaullists suspicious of their President’s rapprochement with America.

Then, last week, in a High Noon confrontation at the National Assembly he won by a single (defecting Socialist) vote constitutional reforms that limit the presidency to two consecutive terms and give parliament additional powers. Rubbing salt in the Socialists’ wounds, parliament reformed the 35-hour week, effectively burying it by allowing firms to negotiate their own working-week ceilings. That may seem modest, even timid; but the implications are anything but. It strikes a sideways blow at the core of union power in France: the unions’ lock grip on industry-wide collective bargaining."

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