Battered Sarkozy finds temporary refuge in world affairs

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French President Nicolas Sakozy hosted a trilateral summit with Germany and Russia to prepare for his country's G20 presidency, finding temporary refuge in world affairs as more than a million people took to the streets of France over planned reform of the pension system.

The quiet atmosphere of the Deauville summit, which brought together German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Dmity Medvedev and the French president, contrasted sharply with TV footage from across the country, which showed mass protests, including violence in some suburban areas.

Meanwhile, the country was gripped by strikes and unprecedented fuel shortages following blockades to refineries.

More than three million people (according to trade unions) and 1.2 million (according to police) joined marches across the country against Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62. The retirement age is currently 60.

One novelty of this week's unrest is that the mass protests are being attended by students and young people from schools, who say they are not indifferent to plans to raise the retirement age.

France2, the publicly-funded TV channel, showed youngsters displaying banners reading 'Sarkozy, you are screwed up, the youth is in the streets'. According to students' unions, more than 1,000 schools were blocked.

These were not the only images that brought to mind the notorious student protests of May 1968, which ignited a general strike. That strike was the only time in history that France has had to use its strategic fuel reserves.

This time, the government has denied that it is about to resort to its strategic supplies, but many filling stations were ordered by local authorities to supply only the police and municipal services. Some 4,000 of the 12,000 filling stations across the country are experiencing fuel shortages.

Russian agenda

In spite of the international character of the Deauville summit, the press asked Sarkozy to comment on the internal developments.

He appealed to demonstrators to show restraint and insisted that pension reform should proceed, as it had been delayed for too long in France.

On the international side, Sarkozy secured Medvedev's agreement to be present on the sidelines of a NATO summit on 19-20 November in Lisbon. On the controversial plans for a US missile shield in Europe, Medvedev said his country needed more information.

"We are now evaluating the idea of this proposal, but I think that NATO itself needs to understand in what form it sees Russia joining this system, what it will bring, in what manner an agreement can be reached, and how to proceed further," he said. "Only based on the evaluation of this proposal can we give an answer on how we will proceed with regard to the idea of European missile defence," Medvedev was quoted as saying.

Under pressure from Moscow to lift EU visa requirements for Russian citizens, Sarkozy apparently disappointed his guest, indicating that a solution could come in the long term.

"From my point of view, in 10 to 15 years the vision that we should have is a common economic EU-Russia space, the end of visa requirements and a common security concept," Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

But Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma's foreign relation committee, the lower chamber of parliament, said the visa problem would be solved much more quickly.

According to Kosachev, the 10-15 year timeframe is for the establishment of full-scale economic and security cooperation between the two sides, while the visa issue could be resolved sooner.

Appeasement over Roma case

A Commission decision to drop a threat of legal action against France regarding the controversial expulsions of Roma provided some comfort to Sarkozy.

Justice and Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding said yesterday (19 October) in Strasbourg that France had met the Commission's demands to modify its national legislation in order to better apply EU law on the free movement of EU citizens.

The information on the plans to align French legislation with EU law was reportedly supplied by Paris one hour before a midnight deadline on 15 October.

"I am very happy that reason has prevailed," Sarkozy told reporters in Deauville.

However, a Commission spokesperson explained that that the case with France had two dimensions. The first was the alignment of its legislation with EU law, on which Paris had until 15 October to make its intentions clear.

The second dimension is whether the expulsion policy was targeted at the Roma minority, amounting to discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.

On this aspect, he said there was no deadline, meaning France is still under Commission scrutiny.

A five-page Commission internal paper called “Transposition by France of Procedural Safeguards Related to EU Free Movement Rules” dated 19 October and seen by EURACTIV says that the EU executive expects that the transposition will take effect in accordance with the timetable communicated by the French authorities, that is, in the spring of 2011.

Some clarifications are however still required, the Commission writes.

Also, the EU executive reserves itself the right to seek further information and says it will continue to monitor the situation in France, as well as in other member countries.

France and Germany often hold meetings ahead of EU summits. EU leaders will meet in Brussels next week, on 28-29 October.

This time, the Deauville summit was held in two formats – a bilateral one between France and Germany and a trilateral, with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.

The main goal of the trilateral summit was to help prepare the NATO summit on 19-20 November in Lisbon, but also to advance EU-Russia relations, as well to coordinate positions ahead of the French Presidency of the G20, which starts in January 2011.

Sarkozy's popularity ratings are dismal 18 months before a presidential election. Officially he has not made public his intention to run, but everyone expects him to seek a second mandate.

  • 28-29 Oct.: EU summit, Bussels.
  • Nov. 19-20: NATO summit, Lisbon.
  • Nov. 2010: G20 meeting in Seoul (South Korea).
  • Jan. 2011: France takes over presidency of G20.

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