French workers launch new strike against retirement at 62
French workers turned up the heat on Nicolas Sarkozy by staging a fresh one-day strike Tuesday and voting on whether to turn their protest against the president's pension reform into an indefinite stoppage.
In the fourth major action against the government reforms in just over a month, transport workers, teachers and civil servants stopped work in a bid to halt the reforms, a cornerstone of Sarkozy's programme.
Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest and hundreds of thousands were expected to join marches Tuesday in Paris and in cities across France, with a further day of street protests planned for Saturday.
But the reform bill is edging closer to becoming law, and late Monday French senators passed another key measure, raising the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67.
The lower house of parliament has already approved hiking the retirement age from 60 to 62, the most hotly contested measure.
Francois Chereque, the leader of the powerful CFDT union, said he expected a massive turnout at Tuesday's marches because this was "one of the last opportunities" to protest against the reforms.
"The government is today provoking this radicalisation," he told France 2 television.
Aviation and railway officials have warned travellers to expect serious disruption to air and rail traffic.
Up to half the flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at Charles de Gaulle and Paris Beauvais were cancelled.
Just one in three TGV high-speed trains was running although Eurostar trains between Paris and London were due to operate normally.
Many Paris commuter trains were cancelled, but buses were operating normally and metro services were also less affected.
Pension reform has turned into the biggest battle in Sarkozy's presidency and the right-wing leader's poll ratings are at rock-bottom.
But his government has stuck to the reform plans.
"We're not here to do what's easy, we don't always have the people's approval," Labour Minister Eric Woerth told the senators debating the bill.
"It's difficult to tell the French that they have to work more, up to 67 years, but it has to be done."
This time some unions have raised the stakes, with threats to prolong the strikes beyond Tuesday.
But it was unclear how many workers would vote to extend their action. All the rail unions voted to ballot their members on an open-ended strike, but teachers and truckers were only planning to strike on Tuesday.
Union leaders have also appealed to school and university students to join them in the streets -- a tactic denounced by Woerth as "totally irresponsible".
A two-week-old strike at oil terminals in Marseille against port reforms has added to the pressure on the government, with fears that fuel shortages could soon reach refineries.
A CSA opinion poll released Sunday showed the president's approval rating dropping one point to 31 percent, his lowest since his election in 2007.
But the pensions bill is a key plank of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he eyes reelection in 2012 and tries to rein in France's big public deficit.
The pollster's findings were more encouraging for the unions.
A CSA survey for Le Parisien newspaper published Monday said 69 percent of French people backed Tuesday's strike, with 61 percent in favour of more open-ended industrial action.
Some union activists nevertheless fear the protest may be running out of steam and that this is the last chance to make the government back down.
The Senate's deliberations are due to last until Friday and the government hopes for the reform to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.
© 2010 AFP