Striking French workers try to shut down country

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Published: October 12,2010

Tags: labor unrest, strikes

PARIS — Workers tried to shut down France today with strikes affecting transportation, schools and the postal service in a showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his government’s attempt to raise the retirement age by two years to save money.

Hundreds of tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower were ushered away after workers there voted to join the strike, forcing the tower’s early closure. It was expected to reopen Wednesday.

Refinery workers also walked off the job — leading one union to warn of looming gasoline shortages — and another labor leader warned that workers from across different sectors were determined to stay off the job indefinitely if the government doesn’t back down.

The parliament’s lower house 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.

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 walkouts could last for days or even weeks. Past walkouts lasted only one day.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT labor union, predicted that the strikes “will continue for as long as needed,” in comments to i-Tele news channel.

Train drivers launched an open-ended strike last night, and the work stoppages widened to other sectors today. High school students were also expected to walk out of hundreds of schools.

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

Around 30 percent of flights were canceled at France’s busiest airport, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, while cancellations at the capital’s second airport, Orly, reached 50 percent, according to aviation authorities. Most of the affected flights were short-haul domestic flights or inter-European flights, according to a civil aviation authority official.

Workers at all six of oil giant Total SA’s French refineries were striking, and two of them had begun preparations for total shutdowns, company spokesman Michael Crochet-Vourey said. He declined to estimate how long it would take before the strikes translated into gas shortages at the pump.

Participation in the strikes varied by sector. The Education Ministry said fewer elementary and high school teachers were striking compared to the last strike Sept. 23, while the national railway said participation had risen.

A union-led demonstration filled Marseille’s Old Port with red flares and smoke, and tens of thousands of workers marched in Toulouse.

“I think the government needs to listen to the message of the people in the streets and the workers from all the companies in our country,” said metal worker Didier Musato, 53, from the CFDT union.

With service on suburban trains and the Paris subway 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.

“I understand the strikers, I tolerate it,” said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his bicycle out of the Gare du Nord train station on his way to work.

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

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, they insist. Even with the 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.

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.

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