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French Unions to Continue Strikes as Sarkozy Digs In on Pensions

The Paris metro has been disrupted less by workers’ strikes since 2007, when the government introduced what it called the minimum service. Photographer: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
The Paris metro has been disrupted less by workers’ strikes since 2007, when the government introduced what it called the minimum service. Photographer: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Some French workers will continue striking tomorrow after a record number of people protested President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the retirement age.

The Paris metro and long-distance trains will be disrupted for a second day after some unions opted to stay off the job, as did port workers in Marseille. The government said it won’t back down on a plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, saying it’s necessary to save the pension system.

“We are determined to carry out these measures because they are reasonable, because they are just,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said during parliamentary debate today. “Above all, we are determined to carry on because they are essential to finance the retirements of our citizens.”

Across France, 1.23 million people marched in protests to mark today’s strike, police said, up from 997,000 during the previous day of demonstrations, which took place on a Saturday, Oct. 2, and didn’t involve strikes. The CFDT union said 3.5 million people marched today, up from 2.9 million. Today’s protest was the fourth against the proposed pension changes in five weeks. Unions plan more demonstrations Oct. 16.

The bill has been approved by the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, while the Senate is still debating the measure and has approved some key planks, such as raising the minimum age for a pension to 62 and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65.

The government says the changes are needed to help France cope with an aging population and balance the pension system’s budget by 2018. Improvement of the system is part of the government’s broader struggle to cut the budget deficit. This year, the gap will stand at 7.7 percent of gross domestic product, and Sarkozy’s ministers plan to reduce it to 92 billion euros ($127 billion), or 6 percent of GDP, next year.

Landmarks Close

Tourists visiting Paris today found the Eiffel Tower, the Musee d’Orsay and the Arc de Triomphe closed.

The Paris metro ran with about half its usual services today, and hadn’t issued a forecast for tomorrow’s performance. The national railroad company, the SNCF, said about one out of every three trains will run tomorrow, about the same as today. Eurostar services to London will run normally, while 80 percent of Thalys trains to Brussels will run.

Union representatives in other industries will vote by tomorrow on renewing the protest for another 24 hours.

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

Teachers on Strike

The government said that 24 percent of teachers stayed away from their classrooms today, the same as during the last general strike, on Sept. 23. Overall, 21 percent of civil servants were on strike today, also unchanged. Some high school students also went on strike today.

“The protest is not weakening, but we can’t be sure it will grow,” Labor Minister Eric Woerth told France 3 TV today. “The government’s determination is total.”

A survey in yesterday’s Le Parisien newspaper showed 69 percent of the respondents support the 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.

Meanwhile, workers at the oil terminal at Marseille have been on strike for the past 15 days because of the government’s plan to revamp the ports system.

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.

Total said between half and 80 percent of refinery shift workers were on strike today. Electricite de France said 18 percent of its French workers went on strike.

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