Sarkozy courts workers in symbolic Ardennes visit
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to the industrial Ardennes department, where he made sweeping promises to improve the lot of France’s working class as he set out his agenda for the 2007 presidential election.
Nearly five years after kicking off his campaign for the presidency, French President Nicolas Sarkozy returned Tuesday to the place where it all began, bearing renewed promises of a brighter economic future for low-paid workers.
Sarkozy was visiting the industrial Ardennes department, where he gave a famous speech in December 2006 at the start of his ultimately successful presidential bid. Addressing workers in the departmental capital Charleville-Mézières, Sarkozy had famously said that France’s “forgotten” working classes should be able to “work more in order to earn more”.
At the time, he also promised policies to liberalise the economy – including relaxing the 35-hour working week and giving stock options to employees – in a bid to improve the spending power of the country’s low-paid workers.
But the economic situation has not improved in the Ardennes. Unemployment is on the up and disillusioned industrial workers in the depressed department, whom Sarkozy successfully wooed in 2007, are flocking back to the Socialists (PS) and far-right National Front (FN), according to recent polls.
According to the mayor of Charleville-Mézières, who called for Sarkozy to be boycotted on his return to the Ardennes, the department has lost 3,351 job posts in the last ten years while the industrial sector has shrunk by 20%.
Dividends for workers
In a speech Tuesday at a foundry in Vrigne-aux-Bois, near Charleville-Mézières, Sarkozy said his government would press ahead with legislation under which employees would be paid a bonus if a company’s shareholders received dividend payments.
“In all businesses, the employees should feel that their contribution is recognised,” the president said, adding that under the proposed rules smaller companies would not have to pay social security contributions on the bonuses.
He added: “As the economy rebounds, it is only right that workers should ask for a share of the profits. I will not back down on this.”
The scheme, which Sarkozy wants to see in place by the summer, has already come under heavy criticism.
François Chérèque, of the CFDT union, said it would only benefit employees working for the few big – and highly profitable – organisations that actually paid dividends to their shareholders, something that smaller companies tend not to do.
“This scheme is going to disappoint,” he said on France Info radio Tuesday. “And it is not going to attract any voters.”
On Tuesday morning, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde had to downplay a promise by Budget Minister François Baroin that the bonuses would be “no less than 1,000 euros”.
“I don’t think it’s possible to impose an obligatory minimum to this kind of bonus,” she told left-leaning daily Libération. “The precise figures will have to be negotiated between company directors and the employees’ representatives.”
Promises of government action to improve the lot of the working class were met with scepticism by many in the Ardennes on Tuesday.
Socialist Mayor of Charleville-Mézières Claudine Ledoux called for a boycott of Sarkozy’s meeting with the department’s mayors, due after his factory visit.
Ledoux, who leads a union of anti-Sarkozy mayors in the department, called for her peers “not to listen to more of Sarkozy’s vain promises or to contribute to his re-election bid.”
“It is out of question to follow the ‘Sarko Show’ that no one believes in any longer,” she said in a statement.
For Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, head of the Gaullist “Debout la Republique” party, Sarkozy’s visit to the Ardennes was “like a criminal returning to the scene of his crimes.”
“He promised the workers that he wouldn’t betray them,” Dupont-Aignan said in a statement. “What’s worrying about his return is that he seems to think that the French are stupid enough to fall into the same trap twice.”