Turmoil In France Largely Due To Economy

France is in turmoil. The government is at loggerheads with the unions over raising the retirement age, the country seems to be in denial about the need for austerity measures, and President Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity rating has plummeted. Eleanor Beardsley joins guest host Robert Smith from Marseilles.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

France has been in turmoil over the past two weeks. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest the government's economic policy. President Nicolas Sarkozy is involved in a shouting match with the EU in Brussels over his crackdown on the Roma, the French gypsy community. And the huge Muslim community also feels picked on. This week, the French parliament voted to ban traditional Islamic dress that covers the face.

To try and make sense of all of this we are joined by Eleanor Beardsley, who is in the southern city of Marseilles. So Eleanor, what's up with France? Why is this happening at once?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Yeah, there is a lot going on. I've never quite seen it like this. Well, actually, these are three issues that just happen to be coming to a head at the same time. I mean, the first has been there a while. Sarkozy was elected as a reformer president. He said he was going to reform the nation's retirement system, that is a pay-as-you-go system that's losing money, and now he's carrying through on that promise.

The burka - and I say burka - that's what the full face and body covering veil is called here, it's general referred o as a burka - he has talked about the burka encroaching on French values for the past year and a half. And actually, France has been consumed in this big debate over should we ban the burka, is it creating a problem where none exists? But that's been cooking.

And now that has come to a head and been voted in by both houses of parliament. And then the third thing sort of popped up this summer. I think Sarkozy was looking to show he was tough on security because he wanted to get maybe a boost in ratings, he wants to attract more voters from the far right. So he started cracking down on the foreign Roma population and now that has also come to a head. So you've got these three things swirling around and it really is a lot of stuff going on.

SMITH: Now, you're coming to us from Marseilles, which is known for its large Muslim community. What are you hearing there from people about this ban?

BEARDSLEY: Well, there's two sides to the issue. I mean, I talked to a Muslim shopkeeper who said, you know, look, I'm moderate. My wife and daughter wouldn't wear the burka. Nobody I know wants to wear a burka, and we don't think there needs to be a law against one, because so few Muslim women wear them. And so he said that the whole community really feels stigmatized by this law. They feel like they're being singled out again. So they're very much against the law, even though they're not for the burka.

And then you talk to people from Marseilles who are not Muslim and there's a growing fear that actually maybe more and more people are wearing the burka. So they think, well, maybe it is a good thing to ban it. And it seems to be maybe putting a wedge between the two communities.

SMITH: This row with the EU in Brussels about the Roma, what's going on with that?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, Sarkozy started expelling Romas. They expelled about a thousand this summer. And these are not - you know, France has a native gypsy population. They're called Gitanes or Sigans(ph). And the Romas that Sarkozy's government has been expelling are from Romania and Bulgaria. Since those countries joined the EU, a lot of Roma came westward.

So a directive that was sent out to all the police departments in France in August was found a couple of days ago. And in it it said, you know, clamp down on illegal encampments, especially the Roma. And all of the sudden everyone's, you know, screaming that smacks of Vichy-France, you know, when they deported the Jews.

So that's what got the EU and the European Commission all riled up. They said this is outrageous. France is targeting an ethnic group, and so that's what started it. And Sarkozy's government has said absolutely not. We were doing nothing wrong with the human rights. And so it's turned into a big row.

SMITH: Well, the president's opponents say that Sarkozy brought a lot of this down on himself. So what does Sarkozy say about this mess going on right now?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, he hasn't linked the three and called it a mess. He's got his government officials out there on each point. But you sense that Sarkozy is flailing around, looking for sort of an issue that will give him a boost in the polls. And at the same time, the most important underlying issue is the economy and he can't really do anything to fix it because there was this worldwide, you know, economic crisis.

France's economy is not in good condition, so he is looking for something else but it's just not working.

SMITH: Eleanor Beardsley is speaking to us from Marseilles, France. Thank you very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Robert.

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