French students march but pensions strike losing steam
French students protested Tuesday at campuses across the country but elsewhere the government welcomed signs that the mass movement to defend the right to retire at 60 was losing steam.
Lawmakers were expected to pass President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pensions reform bill on Wednesday and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde hailed what she said was "a return to reason and dialogue."
And the union leaders who led strikes and street rallies of recent months admitted that they would now have to change tactics and work to modify the final form of the reform rather than defeat it on the streets.
"It's not over," insisted Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union.
"I repeat, the movement is not finished. It will continue. It will take other forms. The subjects it has raised are not closed, whatever happens in the coming days," he told state television.
Thibault's ally, the leader of the CFDT union Francois Chereque, agreed: "The parliamentary debate will come to an end, and we'll be looking at it from another perspective, obviously.
"We're not calling into question the legitimacy of parliament... but a law is always perfectible."
With the passage of the bill now a formality, the unions hope to persuade Sarkozy not to enact it into law without sitting down to negotiate amendments to soften the blow for certain kinds of workers in tough jobs.
The government has already made it clear that it will not abandon the key measure of the reform, raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but Lagarde promised talks on issues like youth employment.
"There's no winner and no loser in this matter," she told Radio Classique. "What's very important is that people take responsibility for their actions. It's to realise that the economy needs to turn over."
Lagarde had previously warned that a series of one day national strikes had cost the French economy between 1.6 and 3.2 billion euros (2.25 to 4.5 billion dollars), but said Tuesday this would not affect the growth outlook.
Student unions have protests from 2.30pm (1230 GMT) with the focus being on a demonstration outside the Senate, on Paris' Left Bank near the Sorbonne university and the streets made famous by the May 68 student revolt.
But, despite the symbolism of this backdrop -- and plans by trade unions to stage another nationwide day of strikes and rallies on Thursday -- there were signs elsewhere that the protest movement was wrapping up.
Government said it hoped to guarantee fuel supplies to four out of five petrol stations from Tuesday, as refineries begin to return to work, although the industry association was cautious and warned this could take longer.
In Marseille, bin men returned to work after a 14 day strike left 10,000 tonnes of rubbish in the streets of the Mediterranean port.
The Senate, which approved the pensions bill last week, was to meet to nod through the final draft after it was reconciled with the version that had earlier passed the National Assembly.
Then, on Wednesday, the National Assembly is due to formally adopt the text. The opposition is expected to ask the constitutional court to rule on its legality, but Sarkozy expects to sign it into law in mid November.
The president's supporters hope that this will put the conflict behind him and allow him to start to rebuild his shattered political standing in the run up to his expected re-election bid in 2012.
Currently, his approval rating is languishing at less than 30 percent in opinion polls, an all time low, but he is gambling that, even if the law is unpopular, his right-wing base will admire his determination.
Government argues that, with an ageing population and growing public deficit, France can no longer afford to retire at 60, a lower age than any comparable industrialised economy.
Sarkozy's opponents say he is making ordinary workers pay for the effects of a financial crisis not of their making, and have called for the shortfall in the social security account to be made up by taxing the rich.
© 2010 AFP