French oil strikers go back to work as protest tide turns

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Many of the last strikers holding out against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform returned to work Friday, heralding a possible end to their battle but leaving France with a deep social malaise.

Workers at oil refineries, where industrial action in recent weeks had threatened to paralyse the country, voted to return to work the day after nationwide demonstrations brought only half previous numbers onto the street.

Thursday's rallies, the ninth one-day protest in two months, nevertheless saw hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the law raising minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 after parliament on Wednesday passed the measure.

After all of France's 12 refineries were hit by industrial action, unions said they voted to resume work at all the facilities as protests lost momentum and the physical cost of rolling strikes took its toll.

"Everyone is proud of the movement," said Dimitri Guiller, a CFDT union official at the northwestern Donges refinery, the first to go on strike on October 12 and the last where unions decided to return to work.

"It's a pride that the government can't take away from us," he said.

Despite worker willingness several refineries were unable to operate because of a lack of crude, although the CGT union later announced the end of a strike that started September 27 at the key oil terminal at Fos-Lavera near Marseilles.

Around 80 ships waiting off the southern French coast to unload crude should now be able to do so.

"For us, the unions, we didn't win, but we didn't lose anything either, we were able to mobilise the troops and public opinion against a reform that we still feel is unfair," said the CFDT union's Mohamed Touis at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris.

Blockades at oil facilities have cost the industry "hundreds of millions of euros", said industry representative Jean-Louis Schilansky.

Total, France's biggest company by market value, put its losses from 15 days of refinery closures at 100 million euros. On Friday it posted an overall third quarter net profit of 2.5 billion euros, up 35 percent on the previous year.

Meanwhile, fuel supplies are returning to normal, the government said, with around 85 percent of filling stations supplied, while striking rubbish collectors in the southern city of Toulouse also went back to work.

Some workers refused to be bowed, with 300 strikers in the south of France blockading two logistics centres around Aix-en-Provence for several hours early Friday.

At least one more day of action is planned on November 6 despite parliament approving Sarkozy's law and his aides say he intends to sign it into law on or around November 15.

France's Socialist opposition, which accuses the right-wing government of forcing ordinary workers to work longer to compensate for the failures of high finance, have demanded that the president stay his pen.

Unions say that the law was forced through parliament by the president without consultation, and the Socialists are to contest its legality before the Constitutional Court next week.

"We have the satisfaction of having carried out our duty," said Dominique Paille, spokesman for Sarkozy's UMP party.

The head of the Force Ouvriere union, Jean-Claude Mailly, said: "I'm sure of one thing, that this will leave deep marks."

Writing in the left-leaning Liberation daily, the columnist Francois Sergent said neither Sarkozy nor French society would emerge from the battle as victor.

"This reform, imposed using forceps against the will of most French, was supposed to show a brave president (but) it rather shows a deaf and unpopular president," he wrote in an editorial.

"This surprising movement has also shown the exceptional mobilisation of a France that is prey to a hidden unhappiness and profound disenchantment."

Sarkozy's administration has all along insisted that raising the retirement age is not only necessary but "inevitable", with the French population ageing and the public deficit expanding.

Sarkozy's approval rating is languishing at a new low of 29 percent, but he nevertheless hopes a pension reform victory can help restore his political fortunes in the run-up to a re-election bid in 2012.

© 2010 AFP

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