French pension law nears adoption as workers fight on

The French government pledged on Saturday to restore fuel supplies but unions dug in their heels at strike-hit oil refineries after the Senate approved the pension reform bill at the heart of the dispute.

Despite weeks of protests and strikes that have hit railways and refineries hardest, the flagship reform of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s term is expected to be finally adopted by Wednesday.

On the first day of a 12-day, mid-term school holiday, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau assured motorists highway service stations were well stocked but acknowledged shortages elsewhere and urged motorists not to overdo tank refills.

“More and more stations will be getting supplies,” he told Europe 1 radio, saying highway supply levels were “perfect.”

Neither he nor Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, who also sought to reassure in comments to journalists on Saturday, ventured to say when things would return to normal, something that Prime Minister Francois Fillon had said last Tuesday would take “four or five days.”

The state railway company SNCF, where rolling strikes have reduced services by as much as 50 percent, announced improved frequency on high-speed links — eight in 10 trains running — for the holiday rush. But SNCF said many other services would be between 50 and 60 percent of normal levels.

Sarkozy and his centre-right government have refused to back down on a bill that aims to plug a hole in pension funding by raising the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and the age at which people qualify for a full pension to 67 from 65.

The bill was rushed past a first hurdle in the National Assembly on September 15 and cleared a second on Friday when the government used a special procedure to bring the bill to a quick vote in the Senate where it passed.

Final adoption is due next week, when the bill will be put to a panel representing both houses of parliament to put finishing touches on the text before a last vote by both, expected by Wednesday.

Sarkozy could make a TV appearance that evening if all goes to schedule, Le Monde newspaper said. But an Elysee source said the report was wrong and there was no plan for Sarkozy to go on TV next week.

The law has been one of the most fiercely contested reforms among austerity measures being taken by European governments as the continent emerges deeply indebted from the worst recession since World War Two.

Unions have signalled their determination to keep fighting the bill despite the fact it now looks certain to make it into the statute book. All France’s main unions have called for two more days of protests on October 28 and November 6.

Strikes continued at France’s 12 oil refineries, a spokesman for the CGT union said, and also at the Fos-Lavera oil terminal near the Mediterranean port of Marseille, leaving some 50 tankers unable to dock.

The unions scored a legal victory late on Friday when a court struck down a back-to-work order at the Grandpuits refinery east of Paris issued by the prefect, on the grounds that it did not respect the right to strike.

Police charged picket lines on Friday to end a blockade at Grandpuits.

With refinery workers maintaining the pressure, the CGT union urged railworkers to stay the course even if strike days are docked from wages. “It’s worth losing a few days pay to win years of pension,” the union said in a statement.

North of Paris, the Picardie region’s soccer league cancelled weekend matches, citing fuel supply problems.

Energy Minister Borloo said on Friday about one in five petrol stations was short of or out of fuel, down from nearer 30 percent earlier in the week. But Bussereau conceded on Saturday that the number of empty fuel stations was 35 percent in parts of eastern and western France.

Moreover, France’s traffic information agency warned drivers that there were some difficulties and advised them not to let tanks run right down before seeking a refill.

Unions said street marches this week, the sixth day of protests and strikes since June attracted about 3.5 million people. The government put the number at just over one million.

Political analysts say Sarkozy may be hoping that the school holiday will reduce student participation in the next protests and, with that, reduce the risk of a repetition of the sporadic violence this week in Lyon and in Nanterre, west of Paris.

Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings are at or near rock-bottom in most polls, may take heart from an OpinionWay poll published on Saturday that said 56 percent of respondents favoured an end to protests if and when parliament adopted the reform bill.

Source: Reuters

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