October 26, 2010
By STEVEN ERLANGER
PARIS — As hundreds of students demonstrated outside, the French Senate approved the final draft of a bill on Tuesday that would raise the minimum retirement age.
The final bill, in a text now agreed to by both houses of Parliament, is expected to be passed Wednesday by the National Assembly, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has a clear majority. After examination by the Constitutional Council, the bill is expected to become law in mid-November and go into effect gradually beginning in July, bringing the age for a minimum pension to 62 from 60 and for a full pension to 67 from 65.
The bill has various exceptions for manual laborers and women who take successive maternity leaves, and it includes a promise of a new debate on a more comprehensive review of the French pension system in 2013, after the next presidential election.
More important for the government, the union stranglehold on refineries and fuel depots began to weaken on Tuesday, with more gasoline available for gas stations. Walkouts at several oil refineries ended Tuesday morning, with 4 of France’s 12 refineries now functioning. Strikes at major ports, like Marseille, still prevented crude oil from reaching some refineries, and France continued to import fuel at four times the usual rate.
Train services were nearly normal, and garbage collectors in Marseille returned to work after a two-week strike, facing at least 10,000 tons of refuse.
The unions have called for national strikes on Thursday and again on Nov. 6. But at this point the government is apparently confident that it can wait out the demonstrations, which seem to be softening and may soften further after the National Assembly casts its final vote.
Despite a weeklong school break, about 1,000 students turned out to demonstrate in front of the 17th-century Senate building. Carrying banners with slogans like “No, no to your bogus reform, yes, yes to revolution,” some said that the pension protest was an important moment of politicization for their generation.
Sophie Frebillot, 19, a philosophy student, said that student assemblies over the past few weeks were “increasingly being fed by an outcry that’s growing more and more generalized,” and then cited “tons of problems in society in general, and this movement against the pension reforms allows us to express that discontent, too.”
She said she would continue to protest, citing a previous government’s bow to student pressure in 2006 to abandon a law on youth unemployment. “That means that everything a government does, the street can undo,” she said.
François Hume-Ferkatadji, 21, a graduate student in urban policy, said that “people infantilize us, but we’re also old enough to have a political consciousness.” He said that pension reform was “necessary, for we must conserve the welfare state,” but that the current effort contained inequalities concerning women, young people and those in strenuous or dangerous occupations.
“In France, we talk a lot about national identity,” he said. “Well, this is the French national identity: it’s the struggle, it’s resistance, and right now it’s not a big joke for young people.”
Union officials say they are angry with the government for stopping a process of negotiation over the pension reform. François Chérèque, secretary general of the country’s second largest union, C.F.D.T., said Monday night on television that he was open to talks on better job opportunities for young people and senior citizens.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Chérèque sounded more bitter about relations with Mr. Sarkozy and his aides, who had begun their term trying to reach out to the unions. “There’s nothing left,” Mr. Chérèque told the newspaper Le Monde. “The harm done is deep, deep.”
Mr. Sarkozy’s aides have already said that they would make a gesture to the opposition and rethink a limit on taxes of 50 percent of yearly income for the wealthy, while Prime Minister François Fillon was conciliatory, promising a new round of dialogue with the unions on how to increase jobs for young people and older ones.
“We are beginning to exit the social crisis, but the situation remains difficult,” Mr. Fillon told party legislators. “Political firmness without social dialogue is a fault, but social dialogue without political firmness is a grave error.”
Marie-Pia Gohin contributed reporting.