“Nowadays, when there is a strike in France, no one notices.” Nicolas Sarkozy could not repress a self-satisfied snarl when he uttered those words at a meeting of his conservative party six months ago. But following a one-day general strike and huge street demonstrations across the country in January, the French president was far less ebullient, merely stating that he understood the “legitimate concerns” of his fellow citizens.

To be sure, Sarko can rely on a strong majority and a weak opposition. And he claims to be doing his utmost to withstand the tidal wave coming from Wall Street; he thundered against the excesses of capitalism and ordered bankers to forgo bonuses if they want to benefit from a stimulus package. But he could not fail to notice that while most slogans of the January 29 marches were about bread-and-butter issues (“Billions for health and education, not for speculation!”), a few were clearly aimed at the resident of the Élysée Palace. “Hey Sarko, can you see this strike?” teachers walking in Paris shouted. Others sang, in English, “Sarko! No you can’t! Yes we can!”

They were among the 1 million (according to the police) to 2.5 million (say the organizers) demonstrators who poured into the streets across France, responding to the first unanimous call of major trade unions in fourteen years. Conservative politicians and pundits shrugged off this “so French” habit of taking to the streets and blasted the unions for rehashing outdated leftist demands. Some, noting that there was no unifying cause, described the protests as an act of collective catharsis prompted by the darkening economic clouds. But there was more to it.

To begin with, the marches took place not just in large cities but in small towns. Moreover, they featured not only the expected outpouring of civil servants and employees of state-owned companies but numerous private-sector workers as well. “I’m not a union guy and I’m not a political guy, but I see what’s happening and I’m really worried,” said François, a middle-aged aeronautics employee marching quietly alongside boisterous hospital workers in Paris. “And I don’t think the politicians realize what’s happening in factories and companies.”

Sarkozy’s leanings toward ostentatious watches and vacations have undermined the anti-elitist image that helped him win the presidency in May 2007. Moreover, whereas French presidents traditionally focus on foreign policy, Sarkozy is constantly intervening on a broad array of domestic issues normally under the purview of the prime minister, for instance appointing the head of the main public TV channel or initiating judicial reform. Sarkozy has thus become a “hyper-president” whose authoritarian ways have drawn comparisons to Napoleon. He risks becoming a punching bag if the national mood continues to sour; his economy minister has even warned of possible “social unrest.”

For now, Sarkozy’s best ally is the Socialist Party, which he adroitly weakened by appointing several members to government positions. The Socialists have also played their part by spending much of the past year in vicious internecine battles. As a result, they are being challenged on the left by two new parties: the Party of the Left, headed by one of their recently departed leaders, and, further left, the Trotskyist Anti-Capitalist Party, led by Olivier Besancenot, a charismatic young postman turned political star [see Perelman, “Letter From Lille,” June 16, 2008]. These forces are calling for an in-depth economic revamping that would grant broad powers to the state and more sway to workers. While “the left of the left” is unlikely to garner enough votes to challenge the Socialists as the main opposition force, it is having a field day with the crisis and has been encouraged by a poll showing that a unified “left of the left” slate at the June European Parliament elections would get 14.5 percent.

The conservative camp is officially very concerned about the red peril. But just as Socialist president François Mitterrand used the rise of the far-right National Front to weaken conservatives in the 1980s, Sarkozy and his underlings are quite happy to see Besancenot & Co. emerge as rivals to the Socialists. Martine Aubry, the new Socialist leader, is thus trying to reunify the party by leaning left and attacking Sarkozy, depicting him as a threat to civil liberties. In January Socialist lawmakers stormed out of Parliament to protest efforts by the ruling party to curtail the opposition’s right to amend laws–the first such incident since 1974. Aubry has also presented a stimulus package that would grant more money to French citizens rather than to their banks and ordered her troops to join the January 29 demonstrations.

But pols, right or left, were not exactly on the minds of the marchers. “I have been to quite a few of these before, but I have never seen such anguish,” said René, a veteran of the old Communist union CGT. “There is a strange smell in the air.”