French pension strikes test Sarkozy

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Al Jazeera

France, 19 October 2010: General strike and protests hit France as unions angry with pension reform step up pressure on the government. Strikes and protests are taking place across France, as public workers and students mount pressure on the government to scrap its pension overhaul.


Tuesday’s action has disrupted plane, train and bus travel as well as school and post services. The country also faces potential fuel shortages from ongoing walkouts by oil refinery and port workers. Striking workers have clashed with police in cities across the country, while Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, pledged to crack down on "troublemakers" and guarantee public order.


Police used tear gas to break up protests in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, and cars were burnt or overturned in the suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, French media reported. Unions are hoping to step up their action in the run-up to the senate vote on the pension bill scheduled for Wednesday, in what is being seen as a showdown between workers and Sarkozy.



France’s CGT union said 3.5 million people joined the nationwide street protests on Tuesday, which would make it one of the biggest demonstrations over the issue. Government estimates of the size of the protests are much lower. Some 480,000 protesters had poured onto the streets of the country by midday, the interior ministry said, slightly down from the 500,000 that took part in last week’s protest.


Tuesday is the sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests since June. Al Jazeera’s Emma Hayward, reporting from Paris, said despite the disruption there was "widespread support for the strikes". "A poll last night said that 70 per cent of people support the strikes. But the president is standing firm. He says that these reforms have to go ahead."


Hit by fuel shortages, France’s civil aviation authority said airlines must cancel 50 per cent of flights from Paris’ Orly airport and 30 per cent from other airports nationwide on Tuesday, including the country’s largest airport, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle. Motorists have also been hit as petrol stations run dry due to striking oil refinery workers.



Sarkozy, who has been holding a summit with German and Russian leaders, said he would be returning to restore calm in the nation. "In a democracy, everyone can express themselves but you have to do so without violence or excesses," he said on Tuesday.


"I will hold a meeting as soon as I return to Paris to unblock a certain number of situations, because there are people who want to work and who must not be deprived of petrol." The main points of the pension bill have passed through both houses of France’s parliament and, following the next senate vote, could soon be signed into law.


Sarkozy has said that he will continue with the proposed pension reform which will raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively. The government has said that the moves are the only way to reduce the national budget deficit.



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