New protest planned after France passes pension reform

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The French parliament on Wednesday adopted President Nicolas Sarkozy's fiercely contested law on pension reform after a final vote by MPs despite weeks of nationwide protests and strikes.

The National Assembly voted 336 for and 233 against the final draft of the law, which will increase France's minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, amid ongoing protests that have threatened to bring the country to a standstill.

Sarkozy must now sign off on the law and publish it in the official gazette, which a presidential advisor has said will happen on or around November 15.

Unions have nevertheless called for a ninth day of action on Thursday, including strikes and protest marches in more than 100 towns and cities, and another day of "family rallies" is planned for November 6.

"The great reform that was announced has turned into a pitiful legislative pumpkin," said Socialist MP Marisol Touraine. "You dreamt of reforming audacity and you've found yourselves with a country in crisis."

"You've spoken a lot about courage," she said to Labour Minister Eric Woerth, the architect of the law. "But you've chosen to make the weakest pay, to attack those with the least means."

Sarkozy's government has been careful to avoid outward signs of triumphalism, keenly aware that the bill lacks public support.

Jean Leonetti of Sarkozy's UMP party said that the law's passing "is neither a victory for the majority over the opposition nor of parliament over the street (but) a victory of the public interest."

Despite the call for fresh protests, Sarkozy's supporters have pointed to a tailing off of industrial action in key sectors such as refining and fuel distribution as evidence that the strikers have failed.

Protests since the start of September repeatedly brought more than a million people onto the streets and the battle between unions and the government has seen Sarkozy's approval rating collapse to less than 30 percent.

Thursday's rally falls during the French half-term school holidays, and the president's camp is hoping that this, alongside the passage of the law, will see the protest movement losing steam and a slow return to normal.

At the start of the week all 12 of France's oil refineries were on strike and holiday traffic severely disrupted by fuel shortages.

Half of refineries are returning to full production after workers voted to resume work, even if petrol is still in short supply with one filling station in five out of service.

Rail travel has all but returned to normal, however, after a train drivers' strike hit the buffers, and Marseille bin men have begun to clear the 10,000 tonnes of rubbish that built up in the streets.

Thursday might yet see another impressive one-day strike, however, and protests planned for November 6 threaten to embarrass Sarkozy during a state visit by President Hu Jintao of China.

Strikes on Thursday will force the cancellation of 50 percent of flights at Paris Orly airport and 30 percent at other airports, the civil aviation authority DGAC said, a similar number to the previous day of action on October 19.

However, unions said that public transport workers in 29 towns and cities would strike on Thursday, the seventh day of anti-pension reform strikes since August, down from a peak of 103 in September.

Previous strike-day rallies have drawn huge crowds, usually more than a million according to police estimates and as high as 3.5 million according to the unions, but labour leaders were cautious not to raise expectations.

"Our objective is not to beat any records," conceded Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, in an interview with the daily Liberation.

"But from what we're hearing from the ground, we'll see another good level of mobilisation, which will show that level of anger has not diminish."

Sarkozy is aware that the law has not won him any new friends, but he is hoping that by facing down the protests he will appear strong in the eyes of his right-wing base as he prepares to seek re-election in 2012.

In the days to come he is expected to symbolise the re-launch of his strategy with a major cabinet reshuffle.

© 2010 AFP

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