French President Faces Showdown Over Retirement Reform

October 12, 2010 - 5:32 AM

Paris (AP) - Teachers, mail carriers, bus drivers and other French workers try to shut down France in a showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his government's attempt to raise the retirement age by two years to save money.

The battle over the contested retirement reform has gone on for months, but this week could prove decisive. With the Senate expected to pass the pension reform bill by the end of the week, some unions have upped the ante by declaring open-ended strikes, meaning the walkout that begin on Tuesday could last for days or even weeks. Past walkouts lasted only one day.

Train drivers launched an open-ended strike Monday night, and the work stoppages widened to other sectors on Tuesday. High school students were also joining the fray, with walkouts expected at hundreds of schools Tuesday.

More than 200 street protests were planned throughout the country. Last month, similar demonstrations brought 1 million people onto the streets, according to police estimates, though union organizers insisted turnout was three times as high.

The left-leaning Liberation newspaper ran a headline reading "What if the strike lasted?," while the conservative Le Figaro ran a story about how strikes at French oil refineries could lead to shortages by the week's end on its front page.

Workers at France's largest refinery overwhelmingly voted to join the strike, bringing the plant to a near standstill. Production Tuesday at Total SA's Gonfreville-l'Orcher refinery in Normandy was "minimal," and no fuel would enter or leave the refinery until further notice, a union spokesman at the plant said.

With service on suburban trains and the Paris Metro and bus lines slashed by about half, commuters rolled into work on bikes, rollerblades and skateboards. The French capital's free bike racks were empty as many took advantage of the brisk, sunny morning to cycle to work.

Because strikes are frequent in France, commuters have become experts at dealing with transit issues and travelers at Europe's largest train station, Paris' Gare du Nord, appeared to be taking the latest walkout in stride.

"I understand the strikers, I tolerate it," said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his ten-speed bicycle out of the Gare du Nord on his way to work. Fazlic said the strike hadn't disturbed his morning commute by train from Senlis, a town north of the capital, and with his bike to get around Paris, he wasn't worried about slowdowns on the capital's buses and subways.

Fazlic said he'd learned his lesson after massive strikes in 1995 brought much of France to a standstill for about two months. "I have been biking to work ever since," Fazlic said.

Emmanuel Difom, 40, said he'd had no trouble catching a train from the Charles de Gaulle airport to central Paris. But Difom, an accountant who'd flown in Tuesday morning from Cameroon, said he was "very worried" about making the next leg of his journey, by train to Strasbourg.

Both Paris' main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, had announced massive cancellations for Tuesday and urged travelers to check with airlines on their flights' status.

President Sarkozy's conservative allies insist there is no choice but to buckle down and accept the reform. Faced with huge budget deficits and sluggish growth, France must get its finances in better order, the insist. Even with the two-year change France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world.

Unions fear the erosion of the cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting ax is coming down too hard on workers.

Outside Paris' baricaded Lycee Lamartine high school, striking students said they also opposed the government's retirement reform.

"It's about us, it's about the youth. We don't want to pay for the crisis and to pay for the actions of the big international ratings agencies," said Victor Grezes, a member of the UNL national union of students.

Sarkozy's government has backed down from at least two reforms planned in education, opting not to incur students' wrath. Potent student-labor coalitions have brought down many planned government reforms over the years in France.

The Education Ministry predicted Monday that more than one in four elementary and pre-kindergarten teachers would stay home Tuesday, though one union representing those teachers countered that nearly half would.

Sarkozy's government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term. France's European Union partners are keeping watch, as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes.

The new nationwide strikes was the fifth since May, including two last month that coincided with protest marches that drew at least 1 million people into the streets.

The lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, approved the reform last month. The Senate has approved the article on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but is still debating the overall reform. The bill also raises the age of eligibility for a full pension from 65 to 67.

Sarkozy, in a small concession Thursday, offered to allow women born before 1956 and who had more than three children to receive full pensions at 65.

That apparently did little to stem the strike plans.

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Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard and Jamey Keaten and APTN producer Sylvain Plazy in Paris contributed to this report.