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France

Students called to protest as pensions bill reaches final stage

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-10-26

Amid signs of faltering opposition, students take to the streets on Tuesday as France’s two houses of parliament prepare to sign President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial pension reform bill into law.

French unions called for mass student rallies on Tuesday as the government entered the final stages of signing a controversial law that would raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

But amid signs that the movement against French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial plans to balance France’s pension book is faltering, strikes and blockades across France appeared to be easing.

Most petrol stations are getting back to having full supplies after police intervened at picketed oil refineries and other oil workers decided to get back to work. Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has said that 80 percent of filling stations were operating normally.

While France is on its half-term school holidays, the number of students that take to the streets on Tuesday – under the slogan “Turn up your hearing aids” – could be lower than unions hope.

In the southern port city of Marseille, a centre of much of France’s militant trade unionism, the leader of the region, Eugene Castelli, said waste collectors would end a two-week strike on Tuesday and start to clean up the estimated 10,000 tons of rubbish filling up the city streets.

Warning that the protests are costing the French economy up to 400 million euros a day, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said the protests were increasingly hurting small and medium-sized businesses, putting added pressure on unions.

Many striking workers are also reportedly increasingly concerned about reduced salaries after 10 full days of strikes.

Public transport was virtually back to normal on Tuesday, as the French upper house of parliament prepared to sign the pensions bill into law.

On Wednesday, the text of the bill will go before the National Assembly, France’s lower house, for final ratification.

The opposition Socialists are expected to demand that the law go before France's Constitutional Council for appeal, which would then not be completed until mid-November.

More strikes planned

Despite the apparent weakening of the movement against the unpopular law, France’s powerful labour unions remained defiant.

At the Grandpuits refinery near Paris, workers vowed to continue their blockade “until Christmas if necessary”, according to FRANCE 24 correspondent Shirli Sitbon.

“They intend to battle on,” she reports. “They say they are defending millions of French citizens.

“They say the decision taken by three other refineries to return to work does not change a thing, that it is merely symbolic and that there is no division among them, 98 percent want to keep on striking.”

Unions have called for a further day of mass strikes and protests on Thursday and another for November 6 if Sarkozy continues to refuse to negotiate.

The French president is betting that his strong-arm tactics in facing down the unions will restore his image among right-wing voters and be a launchpad for his 2012 presidential campaign.

But Sarkozy, who believes that the passing of the bill into law is “a victory for France and the French”, has seen his personal approval rate plummet to 30 percent during the protests, according to an IFOP survey.

Sarkozy's ruling UMP party says the measures, which would also raise the age at which workers can retire on a full pension from 65 to 67, is “inevitable” as the French population ages rapidly.

The opposition, however, accuses him of making workers pay more while protecting the rich and the world of finance.
 

Date created : 2010-10-26

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