- Reform - Retirement - strike
French pension reform bill faces final vote in parliament
France's pension reform bill goes before the lower house Wednesday, a day after the Senate approved the measure raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, amid signs that nationwide strikes and protests against the reform are losing steam.
REUTERS - The French Senate has given final approval to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62 amid signs that momentum in the battle against the measure is fading.
The bill now goes before the lower house on Wednesday, where it is almost certain to pass. It then will face challenges by the opposition Socialists before the country’s Constitutional Court.
Sarkozy is not expected to sign it until mid-November at the earliest. France’s finance minister declared that the massive protest movement that tried to halt its passage had finally reached a “turning point,” as the Senate gave its final 177-151 vote approval for Sarkozy’s plan.
For two weeks, nationwide protests and strikes over the pension reform have disrupted French life and the country’s economy, canceling trains, closing schools and shutting gas stations. On Tuesday, students with megaphones chanted outside the 17th-century Senate building on the edge of Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens as riot police stood by.
Unions have called for another nationwide day of protests Thursday, even if all Parliament action on the bill is over.
Some of the youth demonstrations have had a violent edge, and the Interior Minister said 2,554 protesters were detained in the past two weeks.
French unions see retirement at 60 as a cherished social benefit. But Sarkozy’s conservative government says raising the retirement age is the only way to save the money-losing pension system because French people are living longer. It also notes 62 is still among the lowest retirement ages in Europe.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who has estimated losses from the strikes at up to 400 million euros ($557 million) a day, said the momentum has shifted.
“What’s very important is taking responsibility -- it’s realizing that the economy needs to function,” she told Radio Classique.
In Marseille, workers tackled some 9,000 tons of garbage that has piled up in the streets over the last two weeks of strikes. Authorities said it would take up to five days before France’s second-largest city starts smelling like itself again.
Marseille has another big problem: Its port has been blocked by striking dock workers, and oil tankers were lined up in the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see, awaiting entry to France.
Workers at five of the country’s 12 oil refineries were back on the job Tuesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.
But that did not mean an end to fuel shortages. Strikes continued at all six of oil giant Total SA’s French refineries, and the plants going back to work will need a few days to fully resume operations. Crude oil coming in for processing was stuck on dozens of anchored ships, waiting to be unloaded.
France’s trains were operating at near-normal levels Tuesday, but many drivers were still hunting for fuel. At a gas station near the Eiffel Tower, nozzles were marked “out of order.”
“As long as we are still being kept out of gas stations, nothing is resolved,” taxi driver Aissa Smani said.