France: Strikes over Pension Reform Begin

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by
Associated Press

France: Strikes over Pension Reform Begin

by
Greg Keller

Workers carry a banner reading "withdrawal" during a protest march in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday Oct.12, 2010. Teachers, mail carriers, bus drivers and other French workers try to shut down France in a showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his government's attempt to raise the retirement age by two years to save money. The battle over the contested retirement reform has gone on for months, but this week could prove decisive. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

PARIS — Workers tried to shut down France on Tuesday with strikes
affecting airports, public 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.

Refinery workers also walked off the job, leading one union to warn of looming gasoline shortages.

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 that begin on
Tuesday could last for days or even weeks. Past walkouts lasted only
one day.

Train drivers launched an open-ended strike Monday night,
and the work stoppages widened to other sectors on Tuesday. High school
students also were joining the fray, with walkouts expected at hundreds
of schools Tuesday.

More than 200 street protests were planned
throughout the country. Last month, similar demonstrations brought 1
million people onto the streets, according to police estimates, though
union organizers insisted turnout was three times as high.

The
left-leaning Liberation newspaper ran a headline reading "What if the
strike lasted?," while the conservative Le Figaro ran a story about how
strikes at French oil refineries could lead to shortages by the week's
end on its front page.

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, said Eric Heraud,
spokesman for France's DGAC civil aviation authority.

Even
getting to the airport was a challenge Tuesday. As 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), no
trains were running on the suburban RER B-line that links central Paris
to both airports, according to Paris' RATP public transport authority.

Workers
at all six of oil giant Total SA's French refineries were striking, and
two of them had begun preparations for total shutdowns, said company
spokesman Michael Crochet-Vourey.

A third Total refinery had
already begun shutdown procedures on Sunday because an unrelated
2-week-long strike by port workers had blocked shipments of crude oil
for processing, Crochet-Vourey said. He declined to estimate how long it
would take before the strikes translated into gas shortages at the
pump.

However, the CGT union said in a statement Tuesday that gasoline shortages were possible "in the very near future."

Participation in Tuesday's strikes varied by sector.

Around
a fifth of elementary and high school teachers were striking — fewer
than the number that took part in the last strike, on Sept. 23, the
Education Ministry said.

The national railway said participation
in the strike had risen to 40 percent Tuesday from 37 percent in the
last round of strikes, while at the postal service the strike's impact
was similar to last month, with about 17 percent of employees walking
out, according to post office management. One post office union put
participation at twice that level.

A union-led demonstration filled Marseille's Old Port with red flares and smoke.

"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 Metro 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.

Because strikes are
frequent in France, commuters have become experts at dealing with
transit issues and travelers at Europe's largest train station, Paris'
Gare du Nord, appeared to be taking the latest walkout in stride.

"I
understand the strikers, I tolerate it," said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor
at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his ten-speed bicycle out
of the Gare du Nord on his way to work. Fazlic said the strike hadn't
disturbed his morning commute by train from Senlis, a town north of the
capital, and with his bike to get around Paris, he wasn't worried about
slowdowns on the capital's buses and subways.

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

Emmanuel Difom, 40, said he'd had no trouble
catching a train from the Charles de Gaulle airport to central Paris.
But Difom, an accountant who'd flown in Tuesday morning from Cameroon,
said he was "very worried" about making the next leg of his journey, by
train to Strasbourg.

President 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, the insist. Even with the two-year 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.

The new nationwide strikes was the fifth since
May, including two last month that coincided with protest marches that
drew at least 1 million people into the streets.

The lower house
of parliament, the National Assembly, 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.

Sarkozy,
in a small concession Thursday, offered to allow women born before 1956
and who had more than three children to receive full pensions at 65.

That apparently did little to stem the strike plans.

Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard and Jamey Keaten and APTN producer Sylvain Plazy in Paris contributed to this report.

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