Paris: One of France’s biggest unions called on Thursday for further “massive” strike action next week against a planned pension reform that has triggered the biggest and most sustained anti-austerity protests in Europe.
A final Senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopular bill is set to be speeded up to make sure it happens on Friday, a parliamentary source told Reuters, following pressure from the government as protests and fuel blockades sweep the country.
Sarkozy, a conservative who is determined to face down unions and force through a rise in the retirement age, is battling with 10-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up a quarter of France’s petrol pumps.
His popularity already mired at all-time lows 18 months before a presidential election, Sarkozy is fighting deep public opposition to a reform he says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension shortfall as the population ages.
“The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as soon as next week,” Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio. Union leaders will meet on Thursday evening to agree fresh action.
“We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets,” Thibault said.
Sarkozy’s handling of the protests is being closely watched by other European governments implementing austerity cuts, as well as by markets who see it as a test of how easily France can enact other measures to safeguard its coveted AAA credit rating.
Police were sent in this week on the president’s orders to break up barricades at fuel depots. On Thursday officers removed a roadblock to Marseille airport in southwest France, erected by hundreds of striking refinery workers.
“We cannot be the only country in the world where, when there is a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else,” Sarkozy said. “By taking hostage the economy, companies and the daily lives of French people, we are going to destroy jobs.”
A quarter of France’s service stations have no fuel, industry minister Christian Estrosi said. He said another fuel depot blockade was cleared overnight, leaving less than 10 percent of depots nationwide still blockaded.
Sarkozy has refused to back down on the bill to raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 62, and wants the reform passed by the end of the month.
French media commentators picked up on the contrast with Britain, which has seen no comparable mass protests despite unveiling much harsher austerity measures on Wednesday with 500,000 job cuts and a rise in the retirement age to 66. But French unions are sticking to their guns.
“The French government is following the Anglo-Saxon economic model,” said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the radical Force Ouvriere union. “It has to be wary of leading us into a wall.”
He backed further action even if the law was passed.
Students, who fear the pension reform will worsen youth unemployment, were set to hold their first major autumn protests across the country on Thursday. Several hundred secondary schools and three dozen universities were hit by strikes.
In the southeastern city of Lyon, clashes between youths and riot police, which began last week on the fringes of anti-pension protests, continued on Thursday. Sarkozy called the clashes “scandalous” and said rioters would be punished.
Business leaders are voicing concern about the blow to an economy already struggling to rebound from the economic crisis.
An Air France-KLM spokesman said the strikes were costing the airline 5 million euros a day and Maurice Levy, head of the world’s No. 3 advertising agency Publicis, said he was worried the conflict was damaging France’s image.
The strikes are beginning to hit tourism and cultural events ahead of half-term holidays beginning this weekend, with some travellers reconsidering holidays.
Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins cancelled a debut tour with his band in Paris and pop diva Lady Gaga also postponed gigs.
Trains were returning to normal however, with three out of four intercity TGV services operating, and nearly all international trains and half domestic ones running normally.
Opposition senators have slowed the bill’s passage by handing in hundreds of amendments and demanding fresh dialogue.
Senators voted late on Wednesday for an amendment leaving the door open to review the pension system after the 2012 presidential election, a move that may appease some unions.
Street protests have largely been peaceful except for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The government said 245 people were arrested on Wednesday, taking the nationwide tally to almost 2,000 since 12 October.