French unions dig in heels

2010-10-23 09:56

French unions dug in their heels on Friday with further strike action and a call for two more days of ­protests as a final vote on ­President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ­unpopular pension reform drew near in the senate.

Signalling their determination to keep fighting even after the ­reform has become law, France’s six main unions called for a seventh and eighth day of protest ­action against the reform on ­October 28 and November 6.

“The government bears full and total responsibility for the further protests in light of its intransigent attitude, lack of listening and repeated provocations,” the unions said in a joint statement after a day of negotiations in Paris.

The government resorted to a special measure to speed the reform bill’s passage through the senate, with a vote expected later on Friday as pressure built on Sarkozy to end the long-running impasse with the unions.

In addition to transport disruptions, the president is battling 11-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up nearly a quarter of France’s petrol pumps and begun to take a toll on Europe’s second-largest economy.

Early on Friday, police ended a blockade of Total’s Grandpuits oil refinery near Paris, the CGT union said.

With his popularity rating near an all-time low 18 months from a general election, Sarkozy has vowed to pass a reform that he says is the only way to limit a ballooning pensions shortfall and protect France’s coveted AAA credit ­rating.

Late on Thursday, the head of France’s treasury said in an interview with LCI television that pension strikes had had no discernible effect on the country’s ability to raise financing on international debt markets.

Sarkozy wants the bill – which would raise the minimum age of ­retirement to 62 from 60 and the maximum age for a full pension to 67 from 65 – to be passed quickly in the hope that, in becoming law, it will take the steam out of protests.

But even after Sarkozy sent in police to clear access to all of France’s fuel depots, striking workers were determined to maintain their grip on vital sectors of the economy, such as fuel and transport, with blockades.

Unions are betting that a show of force by students and private sector workers could tip the scales and force the government back to the negotiating table on its pensions bill.

Previous street protests have been largely peaceful, except for episodic flare-ups of violence in the southeastern city of Lyon and in Nanterre in the Paris suburbs, where youths clashed with police again on Thursday.

Marches this week drew at least a million protesters.

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