French oil strikers back to work as protest tide turns
Many of the last strikers holding out against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform returned to work Friday, heralding a possible end to their battle but leaving France with a profound social malaise.
Workers at oil refineries, where industrial action in recent weeks had threatened to paralyse the country, voted to return to work the day after nationwide demonstrations brought only half previous numbers onto the street.
Thursday's rallies, the ninth one-day protest in two months, nevertheless saw hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the law raising minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 after parliament on Wednesday passed the measure.
After all of France's 12 refineries were hit by industrial action, oil giant Total said that its six facilities were expected to resume work Friday, as protests lost momentum and the physical cost of rolling strikes took its toll.
A CFDT union official at Total's Grandpuits refinery in the northwest, where workers have been on strike since October 12, confirmed that they were "heading towards a resumption of work."
The CFDT's Mohamed Touis said that he couldn't see "how we could make the resistance last" but the strikers "feel like they've done something."
"For us, the unions, we didn't win, but we didn't lose anything either, we were able to mobilise the troops and public opinion against a reform that we still feel is unfair," he said.
Workers at the oil depot outside Le Havre in the north said they were ready to strike again, should the need arise.
"The resumption of work was voted by 77 percent this morning, because everyone else is getting back to it," the CGT union's Fabrice Modeste told AFP.
"But people aren't at all demotivated and are ready to start other actions if the movement picks up again. We're going to think about it," he said.
Meanwhile, fuel supplies are returning to normal, the government said, with around 85 percent of filling stations supplied and striking rubbish collectors in the southern city of Toulouse also went back to work.
"That's been nine or 11 days of strike for some, that's expensive, and the guys see people resuming work all over France, in the refineries," said Thierry Artigue of the Force Ouvriere union.
But some workers refused to be bowed, with 300 strikers in the south of France blockading a logistics centre outside Aix-en-Provence for several hours early Friday, an AFP photographer reported.
"We're blocking the two entrances to the site in order to prevent the trucks from delivering to supermarkets, we know that Fridays are big days for them," said Patrice Ehrhart of the CGT union.
"The law has been voted, with this action, we want to show that we won't give up," he said.
At least one more day of action is planned on November 6 despite parliament approving Sarkozy's law and his aides say he intends to sign it into law on or around November 15.
France's Socialist opposition, which accuses the right-wing government of forcing ordinary workers to work longer to compensate for the failures of high finance, have demanded that the president stay his pen.
Unions say that the law was forced through parliament by the president without consultation, and the Socialists are to contest its legality before the Constitutional Court next week.
Writing in the left-leaning Liberation daily, the columnist Francois Sergent said neither Sarkozy nor French society would emerge from the battle as victor.
"This reform, imposed using forceps against the will of most French, was supposed to show a brave president (but) it rather shows a deaf and unpopular president," he wrote in an editorial.
"This surprising movement has also shown the exceptional mobilisation of a France that is prey to a hidden unhappiness and profound disenchantment."
Sarkozy's administration has all along insisted that raising the retirement age is not only necessary but "inevitable", with the French population ageing and the public deficit expanding.
Sarkozy's approval rating is languishing at a new low of 29 percent, but he nevertheless hopes a pension reform victory can help restore his political fortunes in the run-up to re-election in 2012.
© 2010 AFP