The City of Light is always an edgy, nervous place. One moment it’s romantic and charming, the next, a scene of rioting and urban mayhem. The city’s back alleys and sinister inner suburbs (“banlieu”) almost always seem on the verge of violent eruptions.
I just managed to slip into the City of Light in between monster strikes by angry workers. Next Tuesday comes another one that threatens to shut down France’s ground and air transport, and perhaps much else.

All this comes as Washington warns that Afghanistan or Pakistan-based terrorists are about to strike Europe. American tourists are told to be “vigilant,” whatever that means. I am in deep worry my favorite bakery on the Rue St. Dominique may be targeted by al-Qaida.

On a positive note, the terrorists that Washington claims aim to blow up the Eiffel Tower may not be able to get there due to the strike.

A cynic might say that all the recent hyperventilation about impending Euro terrorism linked to AfPak may be to justify intensifying US covert war against Pakistan.

France’s strikes and demonstrations usually have a carnival atmosphere, and offer a fun day off work – rather like a school class outing.

But this time, President Nicholas Sarkozy’s efforts to raise France’s ludicrously low retirement age from 60 to 62 threatens to ignite a firestorm.

Call it France’s version of America’s rightwing Tea Party. Americans, however, are amateurs at protest; French are grand masters. And this angry eruption is coming from the left, not the right, as in the USA.

Like the rest of Europe, France can no longer afford lavish social spending. Pensions and welfare must be sharply reduced. France’s retirement age is now even lower than easy-going, bankrupt Greece. Germans work until they are 67.

Basic pensions in France begin at 60 (even younger for certain pampered professions). Many workers must retire at 60, like it or not. But the French have one of the world’s highest life expectancies -in spite of smoking, drinking, eating fats, driving like maniacs, unprotected sex and grumbling about everything.

The result: an army of still energetic, skilled 60-year old retirees forced to sit home all day watching TV, or hanging around cafés to escape their wives, who are not happy to have their husbands home, either.

Over half of French work directly or indirectly for their paternal government. Every year, French take to the streets like angry adolescents, throw a tantrum, and demand “Papa” government increase their allowance. After much ado, “Papa” usually pays up. This process has become routine French political street theater.

This time, however, looks different. Sarkozy’s popularity has hit rock bottom. Some polls put his rating below 30%. His government has been buffeted by a series of overlapping political and financial scandals, and lots of catty nastiness about wife Carla.

At least Sarko’s expulsion of gypsies, or Roma, has been very popular and played well to the right, the president’s power base. Gypsies account for a significant percentage of petty urban crime and are despised, fairly or unfairly, by most French and other Europeans.

On top of all this, the squabbling Socialists appear resurgent. If IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn decides to return to France and run for president in 2012, Sarko, who presents himself to the public as an economic grand master, will face a very serious opponent.

Sarkozy will also face a challenge on the right from his nemesis, the patrician former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a poet and author who towers majestically over the 5ft 5in Sarko. De Villepin looks every inch a French prime minister.

Many French regard the hyperkinetic Sarkozy, who is of partly Hungarian and Jewish origin, as somehow “foreign,” un-presidential, pushy, downmarket, and annoying. Sarkozy’s devotion to the United States, his anti-Arab, pro-Israel bias, and his dispatch of troops to Afghanistan, are increasingly unpopular.

The general strike on 12 October called by the powerful labor confederation, CGT, will be joined by rail unions. Flights, airports, trains, and subways will halt for 24 hours.

There are now ominous rumbles that truckers, port workers, television and radio technicians, food warehouse staff, power stations and government offices may partly or fully strike. As usual for France’s unions, the public be damned.

Unions are threatening rolling strikes for the rest of the year. Unrest is also growing in schools and universities, rekindling fears of a replay of the 1968 student uprising that brought down Charles DeGaulle’s government.

The amazing thing about the French is that the more they are tortured by selfish unions, the more they seem to support the strikers.

Sarkozy and his able, long suffering prime minister, Francois Fillon, were hoping strikes would crest, then dwindle away. But the opposite seems to be happening. A dangerous critical mass is building up among union and non-union workers, egged on by France’s divided Socialist Party that suddenly smells Sarkozy blood on the waters.

The popular Fillon is distancing himself from Sarkozy and may also become a rival in 2012.

For all its style, refinement, and glamour, France remains a profoundly revolutionary nation. France’s right and left have been at daggers drawn since the 19th century, a conflict rekindled this week by new accusations of anti-Semitism against Vichy leader, Marshall Henri Pétain, the victor of Verdun.

Walk down any street in the old part of Paris behind the Louvre, and you see large numbers of unwashed, evil-looking ruffians just waiting for an excuse to riot, loot and burn. The same type of “sans culottes” who sparked the French Revolution.

French are deeply worried their wonderful, cushy lifestyle, long vacations, early retirement, excellent health system, and lavish social support will be stripped away. This is happening across Europe, so why should France be any different?

Just across the Channel, Britain’s dynamic new prime minister, David Cameron, is laying fire and sword on bloated government spending, which he too vows to slash by a whopping 25%. Worse, French are being told they must now compete with Chinese workers, whom they dismiss as “army ants.”

So the old revolutionary call goes out, “AUX ARMES, CITOYENS” (to arms, citizens!).

Like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Sarko and Carla are looking out the window of their palace at the angry mobs, wondering what on earth to do next. The problem this time around: how to take France’s cake away without provoking another French Revolution.

This post is in: International Politics

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