New protest planned as France passes pension reform
French lawmakers were to pass an unpopular pensions reform Wednesday, on the eve of another day of strikes and street protests aimed at convincing President Nicolas Sarkozy not to enact it.
The National Assembly was to vote through the final draft of the law, which will increase France's minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, despite several weeks of trade union-led mass demonstrations around the country.
Thursday will mark the ninth day of action, with labour leaders calling for a general strike and for protest marches in more than 100 towns and cities.
But Sarkozy's supporters point to a tailing off in parallel actions in key sectors such as refining and fuel distribution, as well as the now inevitable parliamentary vote, as evidence that the strikers have failed.
"Retirement: The conflict is almost over," declared the pro-government newspaper Le Figaro across its front page.
"There's a time for unions and a time for parliament. In modern democracies there's a principle: parliament votes on a law and when a law has been voted you enact it," said Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy's party in parliament.
For their part, government ministers were more careful to avoid outward signs of triumphalism, keenly aware that the bill lacks public support.
"I'll be careful not to make any predictions," Labour Minister Eric Woerth, the architect of the law, told the financial daily La Tribune when asked if he feared that the strike movement could regain its momentum.
"I would say, however, that there are positive signs, with for example the restart of rubbish collection in Marseille. I note as well that the blockade of the country is absolutely not supported by the French public," he said.
Once parliament meets to pass the final draft of the law it will only remain for Sarkozy to sign off on it and publish it in the official gazette. A presidential advisor has said this will happen on or around November 15.
In the meantime, the unions have promised two more days of protests of the type that have already repeatedly brought more than a million people onto the streets and seen Sarkozy's approval rating collapse to less than 30 percent.
Thursday's rally falls during the French half-term school holidays, and the president's camp is hoping that this, alongside the passage of the law, will see the protest movement losing steam and a slow return to normal.
At the start of the week all 12 of France's oil refineries were on strike and holiday traffic severely disrupted by fuel shortages. Five refineries are now returning to full production, even if petrol is still in short supply.
On Wednesday, one filling station in five was still out of service.
Rail travel has all but returned to normal, however, after a train drivers' strike hit the buffers, and -- as Woerth noted -- Marseille bin men have begun to clear the 10,000 tonnes of rubbish that built up in the streets.
Thursday might yet see another impressive one-day strike, however, and another day of "family rallies" is planned for November 6, threatening to embarrass Sarkozy during a state visit by President Hu Jintao of China.
Previous strike-day rallies have drawn huge crowds, usually more than a million according to police estimates and as high as 3.5 million according to the unions, but labour leaders were cautious not to raise expectations.
"Our objective is not to beat any records," conceded Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, in an interview with the daily Liberation.
"But from what we're hearing from the ground, we'll see another good level of mobilisation, which will show that level of anger has not diminish."
Thibauld said a large majority of the French is still opposed to the reform, but that their way of demonstrating this is "evolving".
Sarkozy is aware that the law has not won him any new friends, but he is hoping that by facing down the protests he will appear strong in the eyes of his right-wing base as he prepares to seek re-election in 2012.
In the days to come he is expected to symbolise the re-launch of his strategy with a major cabinet reshuffle.
© 2010 AFP