Senate approves controversial pension changes


THE FRENCH senate last night approved President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial pension reform, but trade unions vowed to maintain their campaign with further strikes and protests.

After a long and acrimonious debate, which the government hastened to an end by invoking a rarely used constitutional clause, the upper house adopted the pensions Bill by 177 votes to 153.

The draft law, which raises the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, is now likely to be definitively adopted by parliament early next week.

The vote in the senate followed the reopening by riot police of a major refinery supplying Paris yesterday, and the government hopes that this measure, coinciding with the gradual return of fuel stocks and the beginning of the mid-term school holiday, will deprive the protest movement of momentum.

The unions have called for two more days of action, on October 28th and November 6th, but there were some signs of division within the movement over how to proceed.

“The protests are not stopping, we just have different views on how to proceed,” Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvrière union told French radio yesterday.

“We still think that demonstrating is not enough . . . we have to ramp it up . . . we need a strong day of public and private sector strikes.”

French unions have previously forced governments to withdraw controversial proposals even after they were enacted – most recently in 2006, when a work contract for young people was dropped – but Mr Sarkozy has maintained that he will not give ground on pensions.

He ordered police yesterday to begin reopening France’s 12 blockaded oil refineries to restore supply to the 3,000 petrol stations that had run out of fuel this week, although the prime minister’s office said it would be “a few days” before supply could be restored.

Police in riot gear wielding shields rushed a blockade and cleared pickets and burning tyres at dawn at Total’s Grandpuits oil refinery, which supplies fuel for the Paris area. Scuffles broke out at the plant and one person was carried away on a stretcher after being trampled.

Unions have pledged to maintain pickets at fuel depots across the country, and they were buoyed yesterday when a poll for Canal Plus television showed support for the strikers had risen to 70 per cent. Polls have consistently shown a majority are against the pensions Bill – a pattern that has held steady since the unions’ campaign began in September.

The leaders of the biggest unions are hoping that the involvement of secondary school and university students – if their numbers can be retained despite next week’s holidays – and oil workers could force the government to retreat, as it did in 1995 when strikes and mass protests over a previous attempt at pension reform paralysed the country.

However, disruption to the public transport network has been considerably more limited this time, partly because of a law introduced by Mr Sarkozy which ensures a guaranteed minimum service during strikes.

There were signs yesterday that the sporadic violence seen in Lyon and the Paris suburb of Nanterre had begun to abate. Some 2,000 people have been arrested for alleged public order offences connected to the incidents over the past 10 days.

Now that the senate has approved the text, a parliamentary commission will meet, probably early next week, to reconcile it with the National Assembly’s version and definitely approve the reform.