France gripped by pensions stand-off

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French train services and oil refining faced a second day of severe disruption on Wednesday as the stand-off over President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform plans escalated.

One day after nationwide strikes and protests brought more than a million students and workers into the streets, both sides in the bitter debate over raising the minimum pension age remained locked in their positions.

Sarkozy's work and pensions minister, Eric Woerth, insisted that the law would pass and that the government camp remained "calm, serene and determined" in the face of the mounting protests.

But -- as uncollected refuse began piling up on the streets of Marseille and the petrochemical industry complained it was losing hundreds of millions of dollars due to a refinery strike -- unions pledged more protests.

Opponents of a plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 have called new protests for Saturday and Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful CGT union, said they were "looking for new ways to pressure the government."

Tuesday's day of action saw students and school pupils join the rallies for the first time, swelling the marchers' numbers to between 1.2 and 3.5 million across the country, according to rival police and labour estimates.

Unions were staging votes in several key sectors of the economy to decide whether to mount ongoing strikes, rather than the series of one-day stoppages that have marked the dispute since September.

Rail unions have already begun such an action, and on Wednesday only one high-speed intercity link in three was operating and only four in 10 regional expresses, according to the SNCF national train firm.

International rail services such as the Eurostar to London and the Thalys to Belgium and the Netherlands were unaffected, and flights from Paris' main airports returned to normal after Tuesday's disruption.

If the strikes continue France faces the rising spectre of fuel shortages, with severe disruption to its oil refineries, almost all of which were closing down or limiting production because of industrial action.

France's biggest oil firm, Total, said it had begun the process of shutting down its six refineries after staff voted to strike. France has 12 refineries in all, and all but one were disrupted by Tuesday's action.

A Total spokesman said, however, that the action had not yet disrupted supplies of refined fuel to filling stations.

Sarkozy's supporters have stepped up moves to push the pensions reform bill through parliament, gambling that -- despite its unpopularity -- protests will subside once it becomes a legal fait accompli.

Senators will complete their debate on the text of the bill in the coming days, perhaps before Saturday's massive protest, and the entire package could become law by the end of the month.

The right-wing president insists that with people living longer and France's public deficit at record levels, the French will have to work longer in order to help stem the shortfall in the social security account.

Unions and the Socialist opposition insist Sarkozy is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have vowed to resist any attempt to abandon the cherished 60 year retirement age.

Government was concerned to see students and school pupils join Tuesday's protest, which in France has historically been a sign that a movement is becoming more radical and street violence more likely.

© 2010 AFP

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