France faces open-ended strikes

Services being disrupted across the country as unions stage another major strike over plans to raise retirement age.

    Sarkozy's pension reform has triggered a showdown with unions that sunk a previous effort 15 years ago

    French workers are staging their fourth major strike in just over a month against government plans to raise the retirement age, in what is becoming a showdown between workers and Nicolas Sarkozy, the president.

    Rail, sea port and flight workers went on strike across the country on Tuesday, while the Paris metro was slowed significantly.

    Walkouts were also expected at hundreds of high schools, with teachers and students taking part in the action.

    Up to half the flights at Orly Airport and a third of flights from Charles de Gaulle-Roissy in Paris are expected to be cancelled, although airlines had already re-booked many passengers ahead of the strike.

    Some unions are threatening to continue the strike action beyond the usual 24-hour period, meaning the walkout could last weeks.

    The strike comes a day after the French senate voted to raise the country's official minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, as part of a deeply unpopular pension reform bill.

    High turnout expected

    Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's reporter in Marseille, the southern port city where a large number of people are protesting the reforms, said workers were determined to make the government change its mind.

    "French workers have campaigned long and hard for their rights and benefits, and they won’t give them up without a fight," she said.

    "They do remember that in the past - in 1995 and in 2006 - protest movements like this did force governments to back down on this kind of legislation. But it's by no means clear that it is going to happen this time around."

    The unions have called for nationwide protest marches later in the day, and say they are expecting millions of people to turn out.

    Three prior protests have attracted crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands but have not halted Sarkozy's pension reform plan.

    "The government is taking the risk of a radicalisation of the movement," Francois Chereque, head of the powerful CFDT union, said. "There will be a very big turnout today."

    Sarkozy faces re-election in 2012, and his opinion poll ratings are at all-time lows. David Assouline, an opposition leader, accused Sarkozy of trying to provoke a "showdown" and bring unions "to their knees".

    Monday's vote, which came in at a narrow 174 to 159, shut the door on the most controversial aspect of the reform package, which Sarkozy's administration hopes to pass by the end of the month.

    The senate also voted to raise the minimum age to receive a full state pension from 65 to 67.

    Oil industry strike

    The oil industry and education workers have also joined in the strike.

    Employees at France's biggest oil port, Fos-Lavera, have now halted work for 15 straight days, and the education ministry predicted that more than a fourth of the country's elementary and pre-kindergarten teachers would strike on Tuesday.

    One poll of around 1,000 people published in the newspaper Le Parisien found that 69 per cent of respondents supported the new strike, while 61 per cent supported a "continuous and lasting" one.

    Like other European governments looking at austerity measures, France faces a deficit and a need to improve its finances if it hopes to retain a AAA credit rating, enabling the country to borrow money at a lower interest rate.

    The reform bill has already been approved in its entirety by the lower house of France's parliament, the National Assembly. The senate is now voting on it piece by piece.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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