France faces further strikes
French union leaders have called for further strikes as the government grapples to restore fuel supplies ahead of a senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial pension reform plan.
France's main unions have called for two more days of protests against the pension reform bill that is due for a final vote in the Senate this week. Protests are planned for October 28th and November 6th, they said.
Mr Sarkozy, a conservative who is determined to face down unions and force through an increase in the retirement age, is battling 10-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up a quarter of the nation's petrol pumps.
His popularity at an all-time low 18 months before a presidential election, Mr Sarkozy is fighting deep public opposition to a reform he says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension shortfall as the population ages.
"The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week," Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio. Union leaders will meet tonight to agree fresh action.
"We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets," Mr Thibault said.
Mr Sarkozy's handling of the protests is being closely watched by other European governments implementing austerity measures, as well as by markets who see it as a test of whether France can enact other measures to safeguard its coveted AAA credit rating.
The president wants the bill to raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 62 and the maximum age for a full pension to 67 from 65, passed by the end of the month.
He ordered police this week to break blockades at fuel depots. Today, they removed a roadblock to Marseille airport, erected by hundreds of striking refinery workers.
"We cannot be the only country in the world where, when there is a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else," Mr Sarkozy said. "By taking hostage the economy, companies and the daily lives of French people, we are going to destroy jobs."
French media commentators seized on the contrast with Britain, which has seen no comparable mass protests despite unveiling far harsher austerity measures yesterday with half a million public sector job cuts and a rise in the retirement age to 66. But French unions are sticking to their guns.
"The French government is following the Anglo-Saxon economic model," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the radical Force Ouvriere union. "It has to be wary of leading us into a wall."
Students, who fear the pension reform will worsen youth unemployment by keeping older workers in jobs longer, hit the streets by the thousand in central Paris in their first major autumn protests. Several hundred secondary schools and three dozen universities were hit by strikes.
In the wealthy city of Lyon, clashes between youths and riot police, which began last week on the fringes of anti-pension protests, continued today. Mr Sarkozy called the clashes "scandalous" and said rioters would be punished.
Street protests have largely been peaceful except for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The government said 245 people were arrested yesterday, taking the nationwide tally to almost 2,000 since October 12th.
Business leaders are voicing concern about the blow to an economy already struggling to rebound from the economic crisis.
An Air France-KLM spokesman said the strikes were costing the airline €5 million euros a day and Maurice Levy, head of the world's third-largest advertising agency, Publicis, said the conflict was damaging France's image.
Brewer Brasseries Kronenbourg chief Thomas Amstutz warned beer deliveries could be hit if fuel shortages continue.
The strikes are beginning to hit tourism and cultural events ahead of half-term holidays beginning this weekend, with some travellers reconsidering holidays.
Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins cancelled a debut tour with his band in Paris and pop diva Lady Gaga also postponed gigs.
Trains were returning to normal however, with three out of four intercity TGV services operating, and nearly all international trains and half domestic ones running normally.
Opposition senators have slowed the bill's passage by handing in hundreds of amendments and demanding fresh dialogue.
Senators voted last night for an amendment leaving the door open to review the pension system after the 2012 presidential election, a move that may appease some unions.