Strikes lose steam at French oil refineries

French garbage collectors waded through mounds of reeking trash as they headed back to work yesterday and some oil workers deserted their picket lines — signs of fading momentum in the battle against raising the retirement age.

France's finance minister declared that the massive protest movement had finally reached a "turning point," and the Senate gave its final 177-151 vote approval to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The bill now goes before the lower house today, 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.

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. Yesterday, 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 tomorrow, 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 President Nicolas 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 a day, said the momentum has shifted.

"What's very important is taking responsibility — it's realising that the economy needs to function," she told Radio Classique.

In Marseille, workers tackled some 9,000 tonnes of rubbish 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.

"The uncollected rubbish is bringing rats," complained Melika Benslimane, a secretary.

Elsewhere, workers at five of the country's 12 oil refineries were back on the job yesterday.

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.


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