Sarkozy ups ante as unions call fresh strikes

 

FRENCH TRADE unions yesterday called two more days of nationwide strikes and protests as Nicolas Sarkozy’s government tried to speed up the passage of its controversial pension reform package through parliament.

After a meeting of their leaders last night, France’s biggest unions announced another round of strikes for next Thursday and a day of protest for Saturday, November 6th. Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, said going into the meeting that organisers were prepared to escalate further their campaign after a week marked by severe disruption for the oil industry, public transport and schools.

“The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week,” Mr Thibault said.

With demand for petrol expected to rise today for the start of France’s midterm school holiday, the government sought to reassure motorists that stocks would be replenished by the weekend. Energy minister Jean-Louis Borloo said the situation had improved yesterday, with 2,790 petrol stations out of fuel compared to 3,181 on Wednesday, while the prime minister, François Fillon, said he would convene a meeting with key ministers this morning to assess the scale of the problem.

Mr Sarkozy had earlier ordered police to break blockades at fuel depots, which had badly hit fuel supplies across the country since last week. The authorities encountered no resistance when they removed a roadblock erected by hundreds of striking refinery workers in Marseille.

“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 in his most strongly worded comments this week on the union’s campaign. “By taking hostage the economy, companies and the daily lives of French people, jobs are going to be destroyed.”

Street protests have largely been peaceful this week, except for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Mr Sarkozy called the clashes “scandalous” and said rioters would be punished. According to the interior ministry, almost 2,000 people have been arrested over such incidents in the past 10 days.

Amid signs that the Élysée Palace is growing frustrated with the slow passage of the pensions Bill through the senate, the government invoked a rule allowing the upper house to cast a single vote on the Bill rather than considering amendments – 257 of which remain on the table – separately. It now looks likely that senators will vote on the package today or over the weekend at the latest, and ministers hope this will sap the protest movement of momentum.

“You say it’s a coup de force,” labour minister Eric Woerth told senators yesterday after invoking the clause. “It’s only the application of the constitution.” He said “enough debate” had taken place on the Bill.

Between 4,000 and 17,000 students demonstrated in Paris yesterday, and up to 5,000 in Bordeaux, according to police and student union figures. “The movement will continue as long as young people are not listened to,” Jean-Baptiste Prévost, president of the Unef students’ union, said.

In a late concession to the opposition, senators voted for an amendment that leaves the door open to a review of the pension system after the 2012 presidential election. The Socialist Party has said it is prepared to reverse the reform if it takes power in 2012, but opinion polls show most people do not believe this.