President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to put his titanic battle to raise France’s retirement age behind him this week by signing the measure into law despite a new wave of strikes, rallies and fuel blockades.
With thousands of families heading off for school half-term holidays, and lawmakers expected to give the pensions bill their formal final approval on Wednesday, Sarkozy hopes the mass protest movement will die away.
But, with opinion polls showing the embattled president more unpopular than ever, trade unions and student bodies have declared at least two more days of action, and strikes continue in the key fuel sector. A poll by the IFOP institute for the weekly JDD found Sarkozy’s approval rating had dropped below 30 per cent for the first time, clouding his hopes that passing the pensions law could kick start a political comeback.
French university students are planning to march on Tuesday to defend the right to retire at 60, and trade unions have called their campaign’s seventh one-day nationwide strike and day of rallies on Thursday.
Meanwhile, one petrol station in four around the country has run dry, amid strikes at refineries and blockades of fuel depots by strikers playing a cat and mouse game with riot police sent to disperse them.
Government supporters were putting a brave face on things, however, betting that on Wednesday – when the National Assembly rubber stamps the pensions law already approved by both houses of parliament – the movement will fizzle.
“In France we have a sort of ritual from another century. Strikes, protests, yes, but taking the economy hostage is intolerable,” said Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the right-wing UMP in parliament, in an interview with Le Parisien.
The pensions reform bill was approved by the Senate on Friday, and on Monday the text will be reconciled with the draft passed earlier by the lower house. Following its adoption, France’s constitutional court may be asked to sign off on its legality and Sarkozy expects to be able to put it into the official gazette on November 15, advisor Raymond Soubie told Europe 1 radio.
“This reform will pass. It’s a victory for France and the French,” he said, noting that recent protests against the reform had failed to paralyse public services and that labour leaders had been “quite reasonable”. The government expects the merged text will then receive final approval by the National Assembly on Wednesday, raising the minimum retirement age from 60 years to 62 by 2018 and increasing the period of salary contributions to 41 years.
Sarkozy defends the measure as “inevitable” in the face of France’s rapidly growing population and burgeoning budget deficit, but opponents accuse him of making workers pay while protecting the rich and the world of finance. The president is due to face re-election in 2012, and the Socialist party has vowed that if its candidate wins, he or she will restore retirement at 60.
While most voters polled say they support the strikes, and each protest day has so far drawn more than a million marchers, Sarkozy is gambling that if he forces the law through he will be hailed as a strong leader by the right. Strikes continue, however, particularly in the oil industry and around 70 ships are waiting at anchor off the southern port of Marseille unable to dock and unload.
“In the Paris region we have 35 per cent of filling stations that have run dry or are out of at least one fuel product, and in the west of the country a third are in real difficulty,” said a spokeswoman for the transport ministry.
An advisor of Sarkozy said in a television interview that one in four pumps were dry nationwide, but said the situation would improve. Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo warned drivers to expect shortages on Monday, echoing a warning from the association representing retail petrol stations of shortages as many tanker drivers took their traditional Sunday day off, despite the government having exceptionally allowed them to work.
Meanwhile MEDEF, the organisation representing French business, warned about the serious impact the protest was having on its members, citing in particular road and rail disruption.