Chaos as French rail strikes enter second day

Chaos as French rail strikes enter second day

French commuters faced a second day of chaos today as unions pressed on with an open-ended strike against the government’s plan to raise the retirement age by two years.

A day earlier, about 1.23 million people marched in protests, according to police figures – the largest turnout in four nationwide demonstrations over the last five weeks. Unions put the figure at much higher, at 3.5 million.

The strong turnout could be a signal of rising momentum for the movement facing off against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing conservatives over their proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Many youths have now joined in the protest.

The government has refused to back down, saying the plan is the only way to save the money-draining pension system. Some unions upped the ante by declaring open-ended strikes starting yesterday, meaning walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks.

Yesterday the strike paralysed flights and trains and shut down the Eiffel Tower. Students blockaded some schools, cancelling classes.

The outlook for today was still uncertain in some sectors, but many workers at the national railways planned to stay off the job and the train network said about one fast train out of three would run.

About three trains out of four were expected to operate on the Paris tube network, but some suburban train routes were to be badly hit for a second day.

Some oil workers pledged to keep up a protest at refineries, and one union warned of looming petrol shortages.

Hundreds of tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower were ushered away after workers there voted to join the strike.

“The closure of the monument is a symbol,” said Yann Leloir, a striking employee. The tower – France’s most-visited monument – was expected to reopen today as usual.

Unions fear the erosion of a cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting axe is coming down too hard on workers.

Despite the strikes, parliament has pushed ahead with the reform. The lower house approved it last month, and the Senate has already approved the article on raising the retirement age to 62 but is still debating the overall reform.

Even with the change, France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world. The country has a huge budget deficit and sluggish growth, and the government says it must get its finances in better order.

France’s European Union partners are keeping watch as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes. Mr Sarkozy’s government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term.

Prime minister Francois Fillon told MPs backing down would be “economic madness and a social catastrophe”.

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