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Workers vote to end pension strikes at oil refineries

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-10-30

Workers at all 12 of France's oil refineries have voted to end a two-week strike over pension reform that provoked fuel shortages across the country.

REUTERS - Workers at France’s biggest oil port broke a month-long strike on Friday, and refinery workers also ended walkouts, ending a bitter showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his flagship pension reform.


The first of several dozen oil tankers moored off the southern port of Marseille could start offloading from Friday evening, local CGT union official Pascal Galeote said after workers at the Fos-Lavera terminal voted for an end to action that had put a stranglehold on refineries.

The strikes, which drained petrol pumps and forced up fuel imports, were the culmination of months of protests against Sarkozy’s plan to lift the retirement age and a major test for the president.

Stuck with dismal popularity ratings 18 months before a presidential election, Sarkozy looks stronger for having stared down France’s influential trade unions with a law he says will stem a gaping pension deficit.

Unions still fiercely oppose the law, however, and a clause in the text offering a fuller pension review in 2013 means the issue may yet come back to haunt Sarkozy.

“All this leaves marks, burns even,” a government minister told Reuters this week, on condition of anonymity.

The Fos-Lavera strike, which began over local issues but overlapped with the wider anti-pension protests, ended a day after low turnout at street marches showed enthusiasm waning.

Marseille port authorities said it would take about a month to clear the backlog of oil tankers.

French service stations should be back to normal by the middle of next week, Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said.

“Today a number of elements made it possible to propose that workers go back to work,” Galeote told reporters.

The industrial action failed to stop parliament passing the law this week to gradually raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67. The legislation now just needs Constitutional Court approval.

Reshuffle speculation

Sarkozy wants to turn the page after a period that tarnished the image he is trying to present of a modern France that can tackle swollen deficits. He has a busy calendar next week, attending a Franco-British summit in London on Tuesday then hosting a three-day state visit by China’s President Hu Jintao.

Sometimes dubbed the “hyper-president” for his energetic style, Sarkozy kept a low profile as strikes began winding down.

Rather than claim victory he has focused on his meeting with Hu and a November G20 summit in Seoul when France will take over the presidency of the economic leadership forum.

“Some concerns, often legitimate, have been expressed—I have listened to them, I have thought about them and at the appropriate time, I will take initiatives to respond to them,” Sarkozy told a news conference in Brussels for an EU summit.

Sarkozy’s pension reform has sparked some of the most sustained protests in Europe against deficit-cutting measures.

While polls still show most people back the movement, Force Ouvriere union leader Jean-Claude Mailly acknowledged there were signs of “a little fatigue”.

His victory over the unions gives Sarkozy some breathing time as he looks to reshuffle his cabinet next month with an eye on wooing centrist and far-right voters whose support he will need in 2012.

But unions are already seizing on a clause in the reform opening up the possibility of a comprehensive pension review in 2013 meaning the issue could still come back to bite Sarkozy.

“The pension problem does not end with the reform being voted. It’s written in the text that the system will be reviewed again in 2013,” CFDT union head Francois Chereque said in an interview with Le Parisien.

Unions meet on Nov. 4 to decide whether to schedule further action beyond street marches set for Nov. 6, while their representatives at Air France on Friday called for a strike on Nov. 4. Turnout at demonstrations on Thursday was down by around half from earlier in the month.

French media are largely moving on from the pension showdown and are engrossed in speculation about the cabinet reshuffle.


Date created : 2010-10-29


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