Sarkozy tells ministers to brace for protests

* Union leader says protest only way to go now

* Sarkozy fares poorly in more negative opinion polls

By Brian Love

PARIS, Aug 25 (BestGrowthStock) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy,
whose support has tumbled in opinion polls, told ministers on
Wednesday to stand firm despite rising public anger over a
crackdown on immigrants and painful measures to slash debt.

Marking an end to summer holidays, Sarkozy told his cabinet,
already under fire over mass expulsions of Roma immigrants, to
brace for protests as they pursue unpopular plans to raise the
retirement age and cut public spending.

“None of these issues is easy and none of the solutions can
be expected to escape criticism or secure unanimous approval,”
the president, whose remarks were relayed to reporters by
government spokesman Luc Chatel, told his troops.

The head of trade union Force Ouvriere, the most strident of
seven unions behind calls for nationwide protests and strikes on
Sept. 7, said he hoped more than 2 million people would turn out
to protest.

“They (Sarkozy and his government) are putting us in a
position where we can no longer hope for progress through
dialogue,” Jean-Claude Mailly said.

“It’s now the logic of confrontation.”

Less than two years from elections, Sarkozy’s centre-right
government plans to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 and
has a month to prepare a cost-cutting budget that he hopes will
convince wary investors to keep financing France’s ballooning
debt as cheaply as possible.

As he gave his marching orders for the weeks ahead, two new
opinion polls highlighted the danger for the president, whose
popularity rating is already close to rock bottom on the
scorecards of some polling agencies.

Sarkozy would lose a presidential contest against Socialist
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former star finance minister who is
currently head of the International Monetary Fund, according to
a survey by polling agency TNS Sofres Logica.

Another survey, by polling agency Ipsos, showed that just 38
percent of respondents believed Sarkozy would be re-elected if
he ran for a second term in 2012.

Some 30 civil right groups and left-wing political groups
are also calling for a protest rally in Paris on Sept. 4 to
denounce Sarkozy’s latest stand on crime and security.

Since announcing plans in late July to demolish hundreds of
illegal Roma camps in a crime crackdown, France has repatriated
more than 600 Roma, mostly to Romania.

Citizens of EU countries like Romania have the freedom to
travel to France, but Paris says it can send them back home if
they stay more than three months with no job.

Critics have called the move a ploy to boost Sarkozy’s
flagging popularity before elections in 2012 and divert
attention from the pension reform and spending cuts. Sarkozy has
campaigned in the past on a tough law-and-order stance.

Budget Minister Francois Baroin noted that Paris has pledged
to reduce the public deficit to six percent of gross domestic
product next year and knock it to three percent of GDP by
end-2013 from an estimated eight percent this year.

“We’ve got to find 100 billion euros (in deficit reduction)
in the next three years,” Baroin told Europe 1 radio.

Sarkozy also defended his economic strategy in an annual
address to the country’s diplomatic corps, saying the reform of
pension financing was “necessary and just” and would be adopted
by parliament this autumn.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Sarkozy tells ministers to brace for protests