Crunch week looms for French pensions reform

11th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

A crunch week looms for the key reform of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, with workers promising open-ended strikes that could disrupt France for days in protest at a bid to raise the retirement age.

Unions raised the stakes in the battle against Sarkozy's pensions reform, announcing a strike to start Tuesday, after earlier mass protests failed to make the government drop the plan.

But as train drivers, dockers, teachers, postal workers and others strike, upper house lawmakers will be voting on the reform article by article -- and the most contentious part of it has already been definitively approved.

The Senate passed that part of the reform, which would raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, on Friday evening. Another key point, upping the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67, was to be voted on Monday.

Demonstrators took to the streets during two days of protest in September and a third on October 2, and unions have also called for a further day of demonstrations on Saturday after Tuesday's strike.

"October 12 is shaping up to be a day of very big strikes and demonstrations," said a statement by six of the main unions.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth said on Friday: "The demonstration on Tuesday will clearly be a big one because the unions are putting all their effort into it. But that must not deter us from our responsibility."

He said the government was making "a responsible and reasonable rise in the retirement age, as lots of countries have done."

The open-ended strike is renewable by a daily vote of workers, but it was unclear how many were likely to do so, with workers in some sectors, such as teachers and truckers, planning only a one-day action.

All unions at the state railway company SNCF, some of whose workers are allowed to retire in their fifties, have called for renewable strikes, as has the main one in the major gas and power utilities.

Airport workers plan a one-day strike and Air France said it will cancel some of its short and medium-haul flights.

Fuel shortages could hit as refineries join in the strike. Oil terminals in Marseille have already been on strike against port reforms for two weeks.

The pensions bill is a key plank of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he eyes reelection in 2012 and aims to help rein in France's big public deficit.

Unions and political opponents say his plan puts an unfair burden on workers. They have made counter proposals including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.

"Unions' determination to act against this unfair reform remains intact," their joint statement said on Friday. "A different, fair and efficient reform is possible."

Some in the unions fear the protest may be running out of steam and risks losing public sympathy.

But a survey by pollster CSA for Le Parisien newspaper due out Monday said 69 percent of French people still back Tuesday's strike, with 61 percent in favour of more open-ended industrial action.

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

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