French unrest over pension age escalates

WORKERS tried to shut down France yesterday with strikes affecting transportation, schools and the postal service in a showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his government’s attempt to raise the retirement age by two years.

Tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower were ushered away after workers there joined the strike. Refinery workers also walked off the job – leading one union to warn of looming fuel shortages.

The battle over raising France’s retirement age from 60 to 62 has gone on for months, but this week could prove decisive. With the Senate expected to pass the pension reform bill by the week’s end, some unions have declared open-ended strikes, meaning Tuesday’s walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks.

The parliament’s lower house approved the reform last month. The Senate has approved the article on raising the retirement age to 62 but is still debating the overall reform.

The government says the plan is the only way to save the money-losing pension system. Prime minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers that backing down would be “economic madness and a social catastrophe,” as a demonstration of tens of thousands of protesters began to weave through the streets of Paris.

Tuesday’s strikes marked the fourth day of protests in five weeks. Past walkouts lasted only one day.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT labour union, told i-Tele news channel that the strikes “will continue for as long as needed”.

Train drivers launched an open-ended strike Monday night, and the stoppages widened to other sectors yesterday. High school students were also expected to walk out.

Jean-Francois Cope, who heads Sarkozy’s UMP party in the National Assembly, lashed out at unions and the opposition Socialist party for “manipulating high school students”.

More than 200 street protests were planned throughout the country. Last month, similar demonstrations attracted one million people, according to police estimates.

Around 30% of flights were cancelled at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, while cancellations at the capital’s second airport, Orly, reached 50%, according to aviation authorities. Most of the affected flights were short-haul domestic flights or inter-European flights.

Workers at all six of oil giant Total’s French refineries were striking, and two of them had begun preparations for total shutdowns, company spokesman Michael Crochet-Vourey said. He declined to estimate how long it would take before the strikes translated into petrol shortages.

Participation in the strikes varied by sector. The education ministry said fewer elementary and high school teachers were striking compared with the last strike on September 23, while the national railway said participation had risen.

Around 19% of civil service employees stayed off the job, the government said, in line with participation in last month’s strike.

A union-led demonstration filled Marseille’s Old Port with red flares and smoke, and tens of thousands of workers marched in Toulouse.

Beyond that, “the closure of the monument is a symbol,” said Yann Leloir, a striking employee at the Eiffel Tower. The monument is to reopen today.

With service on suburban trains and the Paris subway and bus lines slashed by about half, commuters rolled into work on bikes, rollerblades and skateboards.

The French capital’s free bike racks were empty as many took advantage of the brisk, sunny morning to cycle to work.

“I understand the strikers, I tolerate it,” said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his bicycle out of the Gare du Nord train station.

Fazlic said he learned his lesson after strikes in 1995 brought much of France to a standstill for about two months. “I have been biking to work ever since.”

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

Sarkozy’s conservatives say the country has a huge budget deficit and sluggish growth and must get its finances in order. Even with the change, France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world.


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