French strikers, marchers test Sarkozy on pension

French strikers, marchers test Sarkozy on pension

Paris: Striking public sector workers disrupted travel in France on Tuesday and protesters were set to hit the streets as trade unions sought to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to drop an unpopular pension reform.

Airport staff, train drivers, teachers, postal workers and armoured truck drivers who supply cash machines joined refinery workers and high school students in a day of strikes against Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60.

Petrol and diesel shortages hurt motorists as refinery strikes went into an eighth day, and street scuffles in the Paris suburb on Nanterre put the authorities on the alert for escalation of Monday’s sporadic violence in some cities.

This week will be critical for Sarkozy’s flagship reform, which the centre-right government says is vital to curb a gaping pension deficit, but which many French people feel will roll back a cherished social right and punish them unfairly.

As governments across Europe seek to repair public finances after the financial crisis and reduce swollen deficits, French officials say the pension reform is central to maintaining a AAA top credit rating that enables Paris to finance its large public debt at the lowest market rates.

Most analysts expect the legislation will pass within days and protests will fizzle out. But France’s influential unions, which defeated pension and labour reforms with strikes in 1995 and 2006, say they will press on regardless.

“The street has power and it can be more powerful than the government," Olivier Besancenot, a prominent Trotskyist opponent of Sarkozy and leader of the New Anticapitalist Party, said on Radio Monte Carlo.

Justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie promised to crack down on vandalism in the protests, telling Europe 1 radio: “The right to demonstrate does not mean the right to smash things up."

The risk of youth protesters turning violent will be the authorities’ main concern after troublemakers burned cars and barricades near Paris on Monday and fire gutted a high school in Le Mans, in western France, overnight.

Some 300 high school students barricaded Paris’ central Place de la Republique and Bastille squares on Tuesday.

Radio stations reported clashes outside a school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where police charged hooded youths throwing stones at them and dispersed the group with tear gas.

Roughly half of French train services were cut and 30-50 % of flights were grounded, but the Paris metro and Eurostar services were running normally. A spokesman for Exxon Mobil Corp said fuel deliveries from strategic industry stocks were easing shortages at petrol pumps.

Tuesday is the sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests against pension reform since June and a last-ditch challenge to Sarkozy before a final Senate vote this week on the bill.

Political analysts say Sarkozy is betting the storm over his reform plan will blow itself out and he will be able to change the agenda with an early government reshuffle and a burst of high-profile international diplomatic activism.

“The public remains opposed to the pension reforms, but has no great love for the strikes either, and they may get sick of the latter before they push too hard for changes to the former," said Control Risks’ Western Europe analyst David Lea.

“Rather than a tinderbox, this seems to me more like an asbestos tinderbox -- something that seems about to catch fire for ages, without ever actually doing so."

Week-long strikes at refineries, fuel depot blockades and an unrelated oil port strike have sucked dry hundreds of petrol pumps, triggering panic-buying and queues of angry motorists.

The government has around three months of emergency fuel reserves, and striking workers losing pay for each day they are off are seen as unlikely to hold out that long.

“I filled up for the week on Friday but my colleague is out of fuel, he can’t work, he doesn’t know what to do," said Marques Vasco, 52, delivering a truckload of beer and soda to a Paris cafe. “I’m worried this is going to continue."

Sarkozy, who is meeting his German and Russian counterparts for talks in the northern French seaside town of Deauville on Tuesday, told reporters late on Monday he would not back down.

A majority of French resent the plan to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, and unions want a say in discussing a pension overhaul.

“(There could be) problems with cash supply at bank branches if the government refuses dialogue," Pascal Quiroga, a CFDT union representative in the cash transit sector told daily Les Echos, as armoured truck drivers were called in to strike.

Sarkozy hopes the Senate will approve his bill by Friday after which it needs a last vote by a parliamentary committee.