More disruptions expected after weekend protests
France faces further strikes and protests this week over the government's controversial pension reform plans after mass demonstrations on Saturday brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. Unions have called for a general strike on Tuesday.
France is preparing for further protests and industrial action over President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned pension reform in the wake of Saturday’s rallies.
The country’s biggest unions, the CGT, CFDT and FO, are planning a sixth round of nationwide protests on Tuesday, a day before a key Senate vote on the controversial retirement reform. Truck drivers have threatened to block roads from Sunday evening, while refinery strikes have raised the fear of fuel shortages over the week.
Opposition leaders and union workers are hoping the government will back down before adopting the law and hold further debate. “There are days and days of discussion still left in the Senate, now is the moment to say ‘we suspend’ [the measure],” Martine Aubry, head of the opposition Socialist Party, said Saturday.
The Senate is widely expected to pass the reform on Wednesday. But the bill must then go to a parliamentary commission and return to both houses for a vote on the amendments put forward during debates.
France’s lower house has already passed key clauses of the measure, aimed at reducing the country’s ballooning budget deficit by gradually raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says his reform is the only way to stop the annual pension shortfall swelling to 50 billion ($70 billion) by 2020.
Transport unions to intensify strikes
The country’s powerful transport unions plan to intensify their efforts to block the bill.
After temporarily blocking roundabouts and petrol depots at the weekend, French unions hope to bring further disruption to air, maritime and rail transport this week. “We expect the turnout on the 19th [of October] to be very strong,” said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of Force Ouvrière (FO).
Truck drivers will start to block roads from Sunday evening at 10pm, a union spokesman said. “We sense the truck drivers’ impatience to join the movement,” Maxime Dumont, head of the CFDT-road union, told French newspaper Le Parisien.
Strikes by oil workers at 10 of the country’s 12 oil refineries have squeezed fuel at airports and at petrol stations. The aviation fuel pipeline to Roissy Charles de Gaulle, Paris’s main airport, returned to operation Saturday, but fears remain of an acute fuel shortage. Officials have taken the extraordinary step of warning some flights landing at France's largest airport to come with enough fuel to get back home. While the other main airport at Orly has fuel reserves for several days, it also had to ground some flights last week due to striking runway workers.
On Saturday, around a million or more people marched in cities across the country, demanding that the government back down from its pension reform plans. Figures for the turnout varied widely, with the government claiming that the numbers were down significantly at around 825,000 from 1.2 million on October 12, while unions said the numbers were stable at around 3 million.
But Labour Minister Erich Woerth, who is piloting the changes through parliament, said he thought the government's message was beginning to get through.
"The turnout is clearly down, but there are still a lot of people in the street," he said on French news channel i-Tele. "I think the French people have understood that pension reform is essential and necessary," he said.
President Sarkozy seems quite unfazed by his growing unpopularity and determined not to give up any ground. As the conservative daily Le Figaro put it on Friday, the president sees the noose tightening around the demonstrators.
Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, told RTL that gradually lifting the minimum and full retirement ages by two years, to 62 and 67 respectively, would be less painful than raising pension contributions or trimming benefits for the 15 million people in France on pensions. But unions want a say in the pension overhaul.