French Unions Threaten Open-Ended Strikes Over Pensions

French workers are demonstrating today for the fourth time in five weeks in nationwide marches, disrupting rail and air traffic as labor unions threaten open- ended strikes to press President Nicolas Sarkozy to scrap his pension-system overhaul.

Railway and Paris subway workers and as well as teachers, air-traffic controllers and port and refinery employees walked out to protest plans to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 and lift the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. Unions, which warn they may renew the strike every 24 hours unless the government backs down, said 244 marches will take place across France today in cities including Toulouse, Marseille and Nantes.

“The government is forcing us to step up our actions because it’s made no move after the other days of protest,” Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT labor union, said on France 2 television. “I am sending a last call to the government: listen to our demands.”

Three rallies since Sept. 7 that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets failed to derail Sarkozy’s retirement proposals. The government says the changes are needed to help France cope with an aging population and help balance the pension system’s budget by 2018. Labor unions called for more demonstrations on Oct. 16.

Senate Debate

While the government will make some changes to the bill, including a measure to ensure that parents who interrupted their careers to raise children won’t be penalized, Sarkozy’s plan is likely to win final parliamentary passage before the end of the month, Raymond Soubie, the president’s aide, said on Oct. 8.

The bill, approved by the National Assembly last month, was being debated late yesterday in the Senate. The upper chamber of Parliament has already approved the parts of the legislation raising the retirement age and the full pension age.

“Even if a text is voted in, we can always hope the government won’t enact it,” Force Ouvriere union Secretary General Jean-Claude Mailly told France Info radio yesterday.

Chereque said unions have proposals to revise the bill that the government refuses to consider. The plan to raise the full pension age should be postponed until after 2016, he said.

Luc Chatel, the government spokesman, disagreed.

“We need this reform to save our system,” he said yesterday on France 2. He declined to say whether Sarkozy would make more changes to the bill. “The text has been modified with about 10 amendments,” Chatel said, dismissing allegations by unions and the political opposition “that the government doesn’t want to change anything.”

Public Support

A survey in yesterday’s Le Parisien newspaper showed 69 percent of the respondents support today’s protest and 61 percent said they favor an open-ended strike. The Paris-based pollster CSA called 1,011 adults on Oct. 6-7 and gave no margin of error.

France’s aviation authority advised carriers to cut half of their flights to and from Paris Orly airport and a third to and from Roissy Charles de Gaulle because of the air-traffic controllers’ strike. The Lyon airport canceled 21 percent of its flights it said on its web site.

Air France-KLM Group said the protest won’t affect its long-haul flights, while some European and domestic flights will be canceled or delayed. Ryanair Holdings Plc said it’s canceling 250 French flights today.

Eurostar, Thalys

Eurostar trains to the U.K. are operating normally and eight of 10 Thalys trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and certain German cities are running, national railway operator SNCF said in a statement on its website. Half of the Lyria trains to Geneva and Zurich are running, while all high-speed trains to Italy and Spain have been canceled.

About 40 percent of SNCF workers are on strike, up from 37 percent on Sept. 23, the railway operator said. The Ministry of Education said 27 percent of its workforce is on strike.

A third of the high-speed trains between Paris and the south of France are running, as are half of those between the capital and the north. Local and regional trains have been disrupted.

Paris metro lines are operating more smoothly than predicted yesterday as UNSA, one of the labor unions at the operator, opted not to strike. Trains on line 12 and two-thirds of those on line 10 run and the rest of the metro system are slightly disturbed or working normally, according to information on the RATP operator’s website.

Utilities Join In

The RER B commuter train, which connects Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, will face the most disruption, with no trains running inside Paris, forcing travelers to take other transportation. RER A commuter trains are running, the RATP operator said on its website.

Workers at refineries and gas and electricity plants joined the strike. Employees at the oil terminal at the port of Marseille, who have been on strike for the past 15 days because of the government’s plan to revamp the ports system, joined in.

The walkout is affecting refineries owned by Total SA, Ineos Group Holding Plc and LyondellBasell Industries NV, according to the CGT union. Electricite de France SA’s nuclear output dropped by 5,000 megawatts today, said Marie-Claire Cailletaud, a CGT spokeswoman.

Workers at seven of the country’s 12 refineries voted to strike today and others may follow, CGT representative Charles Foulard said by telephone. Deliveries to and from plants on strike will be blocked and refining rates reduced, he said.

Unions said 2.9 million people across France demonstrated on Oct. 2 against the proposed pension measures, which would increase taxes on households and companies to plug the deficit of the country’s pay-as-you-go retirement system. Police put the number of protesters at 899,000. A Sept. 23 rally drew between 997,000 and 3 million protesters, according to figures released by the government and unions.

To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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