Refineries reopen as France strike slows
France's strike-hit refineries gradually reopened Tuesday as the mass movement to defend the right to retire at 60 showed signs of losing steam.
As work resumed and picket lines dwindled, the Senate confirmed its vote to approve the final draft of President Nicolas Sarkozy's fiercely-contested bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
"It's a historic vote," said Labour Minister Eric Woerth, architect of the reform, as the upper house signed off on the measure.
The lower house, the National Assembly, was expected to formally adopt it on Wednesday, opening the way for Sarkozy to sign it into law.
Students had vowed to raise the pressure with demonstrations on Tuesday, but only about a thousand joined the main protest outside the Senate in Paris.
Union leaders who led strikes and street rallies over recent months admitted they would now have to change tactics and push to modify the reform.
"It's not over," insisted Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union. "It will take other forms. The subjects it has raised are not closed, whatever happens in the coming days," he told state television.
"It's normal that there are fewer people. People are tired. It's cold," said Christophe Loton, one of a dwindling crowd of picketers at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris.
"But the important thing is that the refinery workers are on strike."
The government has made it clear it will not abandon the key measure of the reform, raising the retirement age, but Finance Minister Christine 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.
The 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 warned this could take longer.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told reporters on Tuesday that work had resumed at five of mainland France's 12 refineries. "The return to normal is gradual but steady," he said.
Fuel distributors' association UFIP said about a fifth to a quarter of service stations were still dry, down from a third at the height of the strikes.
The first refinery workers began to end their strikes on Monday but it can take several days for a refinery's operations to return to full capacity.
In Marseille, bin men returned to work after a two-week strike left 10,000 tonnes of rubbish in the streets of the Mediterranean port.
Sarkozy argues that, with an ageing population and growing public deficit, France can no longer afford to retire at 60. Opponents have called for the shortfall in the social security account to be made up by taxing the rich.
The president's supporters hope he will now put the conflict behind him and start to rebuild his shattered political standing in the run up to his expected re-election bid in 2012.
The Senate, which approved the pensions bill last week, nodded through the final draft after it was reconciled with the version that had earlier passed the National Assembly.
Trade unions plan another nationwide day of strikes and rallies on Thursday and the Socialist opposition has asked the constitutional court to rule on the reform's legality, but Sarkozy expects to sign it into law in mid-November.
"It's two weeks now we've been on strike. At first were here all the time, arriving at 4:00 am and going home at midnight," said Rodolphe Avicer, a worker at the Grandpuits site. "After two weeks it wears you out."
© 2010 AFP