France strikes again as pension reform enters crunch week

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France faces major disruption Tuesday for the fourth time in a month as workers take to the streets -- this time threatening open-ended strikes -- to fight plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Half of flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at Charles de Gaulle will be cancelled because of walk-outs by airport workers in what is seen as a crunch week for pension reform, officials said.

Intercity trains and the Paris metro were also to be badly hit, and teachers, truckers and postal workers planned to join the protests against a plan that is central to President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform programme.

Three mass protests over the past month, which brought hundreds of thousands out on the streets, have failed to make the government drop the plan.

This time, unions raised the stakes with threats to prolong the strikes beyond Tuesday and have called for a further day of demonstrations on Saturday.

"Pensions: the week when everything will be settled," said the front-page headline in Monday's Le Figaro newspaper, and Le Parisien agreed that it was "the moment of truth for the reforms."

Upper house French lawmakers are currently voting on the reform plans 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. 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 say that Tuesday is "shaping up to be a day of very big strikes and demonstrations."

Labour Minister Eric Woerth said on Friday that he too thought that "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 insisted, adding that 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 employees in some sectors, such as teachers and truckers, planning only a one-day action.

But 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.

Fuel shortages could hit as refineries join in. 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.

Labour 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 published 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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