French unions unbowed as pension reform edges into law

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French unions took their battle against extending retirement from 60 to 62 to the courts Saturday, challenging orders to return to work the day after the Senate passed the fiercely contested law.

Unions showed no sign of giving up the fight and have vowed more days of action in their months-long struggle against the bill whose passage into law the government hopes will end protests that brought millions onto the streets.

The vote late Friday all but sealed the reform, the centrepiece of President Nicolas Sarkozy's agenda, and government expects the text to be reconciled with a lower house version before being definitively adopted on Wednesday.

Many petrol pumps have run dry because of panic buying and officials sought to reassure motorists at the start of the half-term break. Secretary of State for Transport Dominique Bussereau insisted motorway supplies were "perfect."

Protests against the law have become the biggest battle of the right-wing president's first term. With his poll ratings at an all-time low, he staked his credibility on a reform he says is essential to reduce France's public deficit.

Opponents say the reforms unjustly penalise workers for the failures of global finance and have called instead for tax rises on banks and the rich.

More than a million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the sixth day of nationwide action since early September, and this week rioters burned, smashed and looted while police fired tear gas and arrested hundreds.

Strike action by railway, metro and utility workers has eased, but all 12 French oil refineries are still affected and workers at the key Grandpuits site that supplies Paris took legal action against orders to return to work.

Riot police were sent in to clear pickets blocking the site early Friday, but staff who had been ordered back to work downed tools again overnight after a judge ruled the government's "requisitioning" had been illegal.

The requisition order can be issued by French authorities when they believe a strike poses a threat to public order. It compels strikers to return to work, under threat of prosecution.

But a court in nearby Melun agreed with unions that the order was "a serious and obvious infringement on the right to strike and its implementation should be suspended," said a copy of the ruling seen by AFP.

The judge said the prefect, or central government's local representative, had erred by requisitioning virtually all the workers at the refinery which meant the site was running normally.

The authorities immediately issued another requisition order at the plant that supplies the Paris region with 70 percent of its fuel, which the unions were appealing against on Saturday.

Bussereau told Europe 1 radio that 35 percent of petrol stations in the Paris region were dry, with shortages also in the east and west of the country. He could not say when the situation would return to normal.

The head of French Oil Producers Association UFIP, Jean-Louis Schilansky, said that France was currently importing 100,000 tonnes of oil a day, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 normally.

Despite the Senate passing the law, 63 percent of French still support two new days of action called for by unions on October 28 and November 6, an opinion poll for Dimanche Ouest-France showed.

Nevertheless, 53 percent of French think that extending the date of retirement is acceptable, the Ifop poll carried out on October 21 and 22 said.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth called Saturday for the protests to end once the measure passes into law. "Once the law is voted, it must be applied," Woerth told Le Figaro daily.


© 2010 AFP

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