Sarkozy's last-ditch effort to please may leave French workers cold

To understand Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to make French companies hand staff special bonuses of €1,000 (Dh5,343) a head if they raise the dividends they pay shareholders, it is first necessary to step into his shoes.

Forget this is the same French president who was, not so long ago, railing against "unjustified" bonuses paid to people in banking. That was music to most people's ears.

Remember instead he is a deeply unloved politician facing possible humiliation at the hands of the socialists - or, worse, Marine Le Pen's populist far right - when voters decide a year from now who should occupy the Elysee Palace for the next five years.

Mr Sarkozy has tried sounding tough on crime but has failed to persuade the French they are safe from violent criminals. He promises stringent curbs on immigration only for his government's efforts to be mocked by Ms Le Pen, who would be a great deal stricter. And he talks about improving the lot of the man in the street just as the man is wondering whether he can any longer afford to fill up his car.

It is perhaps just as well the idea of giving workers special bonuses, recognising their workplace contributions at the same time as boosting spending power, quickly became entangled in ministerial muddle. The employers' organisation Medef at first reacted in horror after Francois Baroin, the president's budget minister, said on radio the bonus would be "a simply device, the amount not yet finalised … at least €1,000".

"Incomprehensible" was the verdict of Laurence Parisot, Medef's president, as employers counted the likely cost. An economist calculated many medium sized firms would exhaust their entire profits if paying out such a sum to each of, say, 300 employees.

Then Christine Lagarde, the economy minister, tried to calm troubled waters by describing Mr Baroin's figure as a cap, not a starting point. Ms Parisot sighed with relief but, all the same, critics were lining up.

"Wake up Marx, they've all become fools," thundered Christine Kerdel, the assistant editor of the right-wing magazine L'Express. It was a "false good idea", an attempt to deal with unfairness but, in common with many pledges made for electioneering purposes, not the right solution, she said.

The big companies could afford it, Ms Kerdel argued, but even with state help, the vast majority of businesses - 1.6 million of them - were small concerns struggling to emerge from crisis. Far better than a gimmick that could damage French industrial competitiveness, she added, would be to reduce the level of state deductions from salaries (33.3 per cent of gross salary, compared with 29.8 per cent in Germany).

The confusion left some wondering about the fate of Mr Sarkozy's plan. But at a meeting of mayors in the Ardennes, north-eastern France, he promised to put flesh on the bones of the initiative within days.

And when it came, it stipulated companies employing 50 people or more would be obliged to pay bonuses to their staff if they also raised dividends, while smaller companies would make payments on a voluntary basis.

If the idea was to attract working-class voters, early signs were unpromising. One union leader said the idea was divisive, splitting workers between haves and have-nots depending on company performance.

Another pointed out almost half the working population had jobs in the smaller businesses, exempt from compulsion. A Medef official representing smaller companies (250 staff or fewer) said the proposal made no sense and simply amounted to yet one more burden.

But on a factory visit before his speech to mayors, Mr Sarkozy was unapologetic, saying firms announcing big dividends should also be required to negotiate rewards for their staff.

"When there is recovery, I say it is normal that employees from whom we have asked a lot during the crisis should benefit," he said. "I will not back down on that principle."

He has not left himself much time to make the scheme work, impress the notoriously hard-to-please French and turn principle into presidential votes.

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