Rubbish piling up on Marseille's streets - where rubbish collecters are on strike - is fast becoming a health hazard [AFP]

The French president's approval rating has plummeted in the wake of growing distcontent over his retirement reform plan.

According to an opinion poll published on Sunday by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, only 29 per cent of those surveyed still approve of Nicolas Sarkozy.

The poll also showed that a vast majority of the people supported the ongoing strikes over the reforms that Sarkozy has pushed through in both houses of the parliament.

With the country facing widespread petrol shortages, travel chaos and school closures, support for Sarkozy has dropped by three per cent since September. It is among the lowest approval ratings of any French president in living memory, the newspaper reported.

The survey of 1,828 people was conducted in person and by telephone by the Ifop polling agency from October 14 to 22. No margin of error was given.

'President bling-bling'

The contested pension reform, expected to be finalised in the coming week, will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The government says the reform is necessary to 'stem the haemorrhage' from the pension system, but members of the broad opposition movement have condemned the lack of social consultation by the government.

Two-thirds of French people oppose the pension law and have put up some of the fiercest resistance in Europe to austerity measures aimed at reining in huge deficits.

Sarkozy is perceived by many as being close to the rich and powerful and is commonly derided as the 'bling-bling' president. Allegations of illegal campaign contributions from France's richest woman, Lilianne Bettencourt, during his 2007 presidential campaign, have increased questions over exactly whose interests Sarkozy's government is serving.

Strikes, rallies and fuel blockages have caused havoc in the country for nearly two weeks, and don't appear to be slowing.

Rubbish pile up

Rubbish piling up on many of Marseille's streets is fast becoming a serious health hazard, Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons reported from the port city. The military has tried to deal with some of the refuse, but the problem is becoming overwhelming, he said.

"The city is fast becoming one massive rubbish heap," he reported. "The stench is appalling."

With about 9,000 tonnes of rubbish piled up on the streets of the city and its suburbs, the head of the region has initiated legal steps to force some of the strikers back to work.

Marseille is France's biggest oil port and its dockers are continuing their strike into next week, as are workers at two oil refineries. 

Workers at the other plants will meet in the days ahead to decide their course of action, Charles Foulard, a spokesperson for the CGT union at Total, said on Sunday.

"The movement continues," Foulard said. "Everything will be debated among the workers and will depend on the mobilisation of the workers."

Raymond Soubie, an adviser to Sarkozy, told Europe-1 radio on Sunday that petrol shortages had eased but he acknowledged that a quarter of France's petrol stations were still shuttered.

"Will the situation improve? Yes it will, but slowly, progressively," Soubie said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies