Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- The French Senate passed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension bill, paving the way for the minimum retirement age to increase to 62 from 60. The bill goes tomorrow for a final vote at the National Assembly.
Protests against the plan eased today as a quarter of France’s oil refinery workers agreed to go back to work and garbage collectors ended a 14-day walkout in Marseille.
After several strikes and demonstrations over the past seven weeks that left the country crippled with fuel shortages and some public transport disruptions, protesters at three of France’s 12 refineries voted yesterday to resume working. Almost all of the barricades at France’s 219 fuel depots have been lifted. Eighty percent of service stations should be back in business today, Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said.
“I salute the return to dialogue and reason,” Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said on Radio Classique. “The economy needs to function and to do that we need an end to these blockages.” She said the strikes won’t result in the government changing its growth forecast for this year.
The Senate today passed the bill by 177 votes to 151. The protests and strikes cost the country between 200 million euros and 400 million euros ($280 million to $560 million) a day, Lagarde said yesterday. Labor unions have continued to call for strikes and marches on Oct. 28, ahead of the bill’s planned enactment on Nov. 15. About 300 students demonstrated today in front of the Senate.
The risk premium on French bonds decreased. Investors demanded 37 basis points more to buy 10-year French bonds than comparable German securities, against about 41 basis points on Oct. 12. The spreads were at 30 basis points on Sept. 6.
France’s nine remaining active refineries are either on strike or shut because of a lack of crude oil. Workers at the six Total SA refineries on strike will vote Oct. 29 whether to continue striking, and unions are divided about what to do once parliament has passed the bill.
“We’ve always said we don’t want to blockade the country, and once the bill has passed parliament our opposition will take other forms,” Francois Pelegrina, a representative at Total for the CFDT union, said in a telephone interview.
Francois Chereque, secretary general of the CFDT, and Laurence Parisot, head of the business lobby Medef, agreed on a television show last night that once the pension bill has become law, unions and businesses should focus on how to create more job opportunities for youths entering the job market and for people near the end of their working lives.
Other unions have vowed to continue striking.
“The vote on the law won’t sap our determination,” Force Ouvriere union leader Jean-Claude Mailly told Europe 1 radio late yesterday. The “few examples” of people returning to work “don’t show that the protests are slowing down,” he said.
An Ifop institute poll for Ouest-France Dimanche newspaper showed that 63 percent of respondents supported the call for strikes on Oct. 28. That compares with 71 percent support before the previous strike on Oct. 12.
The same poll also found that 59 percent of the French think it’s unacceptable for strikers to block fuel depots or roads. The poll was conducted Oct. 21 and 22, with 956 respondents. Paris-based Ifop did not publish margins of error.
The government says the pension changes are needed to help France cope with an aging population and balance the pension system’s budget by 2018.
The overhaul is part of the broader government 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 narrow it to 6 percent, of 92 billion euros, next year.
“This week’s strike will not change anything in the law,” Labor Minister Eric Woerth said on France Info radio this morning. “In a parliamentary democracy, there has to be respect for institutions. There have been hundreds of hours of debate.”
High-school and university students said they are holding demonstrations in cities including Marseille, Bordeaux and Montpellier today.
The national railway, SNCF, said nine out of 10 high-speed trains will run today and that 6.5 percent of workers were on strike yesterday, down from about 40 percent on strike days. The CGT-Cheminots union pledged to “increase” protests on the Oct. 28 strike day.
Garbage collectors in Marseille voted yesterday to go back to work after the port city was left with 10,000 tons of uncollected waste, according to Force Ouvriere.
Borloo said yesterday that France should have four out five service stations operating normally today. As many as 40 percent have been out of gas during the past week.
Workers at Exxon Mobil Corp.’s 233,000-barrel-a-day Port-Jerome-Gravenchon refinery in Normandy and its 119,000-barrel Fos refinery, near Marseille, both decided to go back to work yesterday. Even so, production is still being affected by a blockade of Marseille harbor by strikers, Exxon spokeswoman Catherine Brun said yesterday.
The port of Marseille has been on strike since Sept. 27, and 40 crude oil tankers and 20 refined-product tankers are blocked, the port authority said today. That labor dispute began over a reorganization of the port, although it is now enmeshed in nationwide opposition to Sarkozy’s retirement plans.
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