Faced with divisions in his own party and the defection of part of his electorate, Sarkozy pledged that he would press on with his often controversial reform programme.
But he said that while moves to raise the retirement age will go ahead, it could be six months before they become law. Dropping that proposal was one of the key demands of the tens of thousands who joined Tuesday's one-day strike and demonstrations.
One reform that has been dumped is the proposed carbon tax. Sarkozy confirmed that the government will not go ahead with the plan, except in the unlikely event of the whole European Union adopting it, and ruled out “any tax increases”.
He also said that the government will take measures against violence in schools and football stadiums and that it might suspend family allowances to parents whose children regularly play truant from school.
And Sarkozy said there will be a law to ban the all-covering Islamic garment, the burka, which he said violates women’s dignity. In January the government seemed unsure whether a law would fall foul of anti-discrimination clauses in the constitution and asked the Council of State to rule before the end of this month on the legal implications.
Although secret service reports say that less than 2,000 women living in France wear the burka, the question was a key part of the UMP’s campaign during the regional elections. But it failed to stop a rise in support for the anti-immigrant National Front.
The Front's leader Jean-Marie Le Pen declared Sarkozy's announcement to be no more than words, while oppositon Socialist Benoît Hamon accused the president of only being concerned with the crisis in his own party.
Ructions on the right
Sarkozy is at an all-time low in the polls and has just seen his party humiliated in regional elections. But his biggest problem may be discontent in the UMP itself:
- Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announces the formation of a new party after being acquitted of plotting to smear Sarkozy as the two vied to become the party’s presidential candidate;
- Sarkozy’s Prime Minister François Fillon, who enjoys higher poll ratings than the president, to call off a high-profile television interview which would have clashed with his policy announcement – the atmosphere at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting was reported to be “glacial” with Sarkozy snapping, “Only one of us speaks!”
- Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno tells Libération newspaper that bosses’ union Medef was behind the scrapping of the carbon tax, after recalling that Sarkozy at one time compared it to the abolition of the death penalty in importance.