France's Parliament Approves Pension Reform

October 27, 2010 - 3:02 PM

Paris (AP) - France's parliament granted final approval Wednesday to a bill raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, a reform that has infuriated the country's powerful unions and touched off weeks of protests and strikes.

The 336-233 vote in the National Assembly was a victory for conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has stood firm despite the protests - a stance that has resulted in his lowest approval ratings since he took office in 2007.

Protesters aren't yet giving up the fight, since Sarkozy hasn't yet signed the bill. In an attempt to revive a protest movement that has lost momentum, unions plan a new nationwide day of street demonstrations and strikes Thursday that are expected to cause travel problems.

France's civil aviation authority says Thursday's strikes mean airlines must cancel a third of their flights at Charles de Gaulle, Paris' main airport, and half their flights at the smaller Orly airport south of the capital. Airlines generally try to spare long-haul flights in such cancellations.

A two-week train strike has been tapering off, and only a small number of trains were to be canceled Thursday.

Some striking refinery workers have returned to the job, but French drivers are facing substantial fuel shortages: As of Tuesday evening, about one gas station in five was still closed, with the worst problems around Paris and in western France.

Striking dock workers have exacerbated the fuel shortages. Oil tankers are lined up in the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see off the port of Marseille, waiting to unload. The Normandy port of Le Havre faces a similar situation.

Unions see retirement at 60 as a cornerstone of France's generous social benefit system, but the conservative government says the entire pension system is in jeopardy without the reform because French people now have longer lifespans - an average of nearly 85 years for women and 78 for men, according to newly released figures from statistics agency Insee.

Millions of people have marched against the plan, and strikes and protests have caused travel chaos, school closures and fuel shortages for weeks.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said "the vigor of the debate was legitimate, but everyone must now accept the law of the Republic."

But Bernard Thibault, who heads the hardline CGT labor union, told Liberation newspaper that the battle wasn't over yet. Another national day of street protests is planned for Nov. 6.

"Until the bill becomes law, we will continue to fight," he said.

The opposition Socialists plan to challenge the bill's constitutionality before a special council. Sarkozy must wait for the council's approval before he signs it, a step expected in mid-November.

Retirement reform is a traditionally touchy subject in France, where street protests have brought down past governments. Now that the toughest reform of his term is behind him, Sarkozy is planning a Cabinet reshuffle, a move that will freshen up his government's image before the 2012 election.