Paris: French trade unions began a fresh wave of strikes against pension reform on Tuesday, testing the resolve of president Nicolas Sarkozy’s government as the unpopular Bill edges closer to becoming law.
Rail services, flights and sea ports ran below capacity as the unions kept up their battle against a plan to make people work longer for their pensions, including raising the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.
The nationwide action, to be backed by protest marches later in the day, is the latest test of Sarkozy’s leadership over his flagship reform, aimed at reducing a ballooning pension deficit and safeguarding France’s coveted AAA credit rating.
Walkouts reduced flights from Paris’s Orly and Charles de Gaulle-Roissy airports by around a half and a third.
One in three high-speed TGV trains on the rail network were running, although international services operated with higher frequency, while the Paris metro had a limited service.
Families and students from both university and secondary school turned out for protest marches in beautiful sunshine. Many gathered outside schools with about 300 colleges affected.
“It’s the young people who are going to get it worst because they will not get hired,” a female student told Reuters TV.
Sarkozy’s pension Bill is turning into one of the biggest battles of his presidency, pitting him against unions which crushed a previous attempt to reform pensions in 1995.
The senate voted on Monday to raise the age at which workers can retire on full pensions to 67 from 65, after already voting on raising the retirement age to 62 from 60.
Sarkozy wants the legislation passed by the end of October and is betting on the strike action waning, especially among those who lose pay when they walk out.
But union leaders are vowing to keep up the pressure and hope the turnout on Tuesday -- the fourth pension protest in a month -- will exceed the 3 million people they said joined earlier marches. The government estimated turnout at the earlier marches at just under 1 million.
“The government is taking the risk of a radicalisation of the movement,” said Francois Chereque, head of the powerful CFDT union. “There will be a very big turnout today.”
NO BACKING DOWN
In Slovakia on Tuesday, people were also expected to protest the government’s austerity package, the latest action in Europe as trade unions seek to rally opposition against spending cuts.
French unions have called a further day of protest on 16 October and warned of open-ended strikes.
Limited power cuts targeting public buildings were also expected as energy workers downed tools.
Sarkozy made a small concession in the reform last week to middle-aged women who had given up work to raise children, but he has said he will not back down on the Bill’s key points.
“While an escalation of social unrest could result in larger amendments to the proposed reforms, we see a lower probability to this outcome than further minor amendments being offered,” Barclays economist Laurence Boone said in a note.
In southern France, port strikes pressed into their 16th day as workers denounced changes to dock operations as well as the pension Bill and forced a partial shutdown of a major refinery.
Budget airline Ryanair urged the European Commission to ban strikes by “overpaid, underworked” air traffic controllers after it was forced to cancel 250 flights.
“Striking French ATC staff are the modern equivalent of highwaymen,” outspoken chief executive Michael O’Leary said.