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Unions try to shut down France over pensions

Workers tried to shut down France on Tuesday with strikes affecting airports, public transportation, schools and the postal service in a showdown over plans to raise the retirement age to save money.
Image: Private and public sector workers demonstrate over pension reforms in Marseille
Rail services, flights and sea ports across France ran below capacity on October 12, 2010, as unions kept up their battle against a plan to make people work longer for their pensions. The banner reads "all together for jobs, salaries and pensions".Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Workers tried to shut down France on Tuesday with strikes affecting airports, public transportation, schools and the postal service in a showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy over his government's attempt to raise the retirement age by two years to save money.

Refinery workers also walked off the job, leading one union to warn of looming gasoline shortages.

The battle over the contested retirement reform has gone on for months, but this week could prove decisive. With the Senate expected to pass the pension reform bill by the end of the week, some unions have upped the ante by declaring open-ended strikes, meaning the walkouts that begin on Tuesday could last for days or even weeks. Past walkouts lasted only one day.

Train drivers launched an open-ended strike Monday night, and the work stoppages widened to other sectors on Tuesday. High school students also were joining the fray, with walkouts expected at hundreds of schools Tuesday.

More than 200 street protests were planned throughout the country. Last month, similar demonstrations brought 1 million people onto the streets, according to police estimates, though union organizers insisted turnout was three times as high.

The left-leaning Liberation newspaper ran a headline reading "What if the strike lasted?," while the conservative Le Figaro ran a story about how strikes at French oil refineries could lead to shortages by the week's end on its front page.

Around 30 percent of flights were canceled at France's busiest airport, Paris' Charles de Gaulle, while cancellations at the capital's second airport, Orly, reached 50 percent, according to aviation authorities. Most of the affected flights were short-haul domestic flights or inter-European flights, said Eric Heraud, spokesman for France's DGAC civil aviation authority.

Even getting to the airport was a challenge Tuesday. As 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), no trains were running on the suburban RER B-line that links central Paris to both airports, according to Paris' RATP public transport authority.

Gasoline shortages possible
Workers at all six of oil giant Total SA's French refineries were striking, and two of them had begun preparations for total shutdowns, said company spokesman Michael Crochet-Vourey.

A third Total refinery had already begun shutdown procedures on Sunday because an unrelated 2-week-long strike by port workers had blocked shipments of crude oil for processing, Crochet-Vourey said. He declined to estimate how long it would take before the strikes translated into gas shortages at the pump.

However, the CGT union said in a statement Tuesday that gasoline shortages were possible "in the very near future."

Participation in Tuesday's strikes varied by sector.

Around a fifth of elementary and high school teachers were striking — fewer than the number that took part in the last strike, on Sept. 23, the Education Ministry said.

The national railway said participation in the strike had risen to 40 percent Tuesday from 37 percent in the last round of strikes, while at the postal service the strike's impact was similar to last month, with about 17 percent of employees walking out, according to post office management. One post office union put participation at twice that level.

A union-led demonstration filled Marseille's Old Port with red flares and smoke.

"I think the government needs to listen to the message of the people in the streets and the workers from all the companies in our country," said metal worker Didier Musato, 53, from the CFDT union.

With service on suburban trains and the Paris Metro and bus lines slashed by about half, commuters rolled into work on bikes, rollerblades and skateboards. The French capital's free bike racks were empty as many took advantage of the brisk, sunny morning to cycle to work.

Because strikes are frequent in France, commuters have become experts at dealing with transit issues and travelers at Europe's largest train station, Paris' Gare du Nord, appeared to be taking the latest walkout in stride.

"I understand the strikers, I tolerate it," said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his ten-speed bicycle out of the Gare du Nord on his way to work. Fazlic said the strike hadn't disturbed his morning commute by train from Senlis, a town north of the capital, and with his bike to get around Paris, he wasn't worried about slowdowns on the capital's buses and subways.

Fazlic said he'd learned his lesson after massive strikes in 1995 brought much of France to a standstill for about two months. "I have been biking to work ever since," Fazlic said.

Emmanuel Difom, 40, said he'd had no trouble catching a train from the Charles de Gaulle airport to central Paris. But Difom, an accountant who'd flown in Tuesday morning from Cameroon, said he was "very worried" about making the next leg of his journey, by train to Strasbourg.

Retirement age low even with reform
President Sarkozy's conservative allies insist there is no choice but to buckle down and accept the reform. Faced with huge budget deficits and sluggish growth, France must get its finances in better order, they insist. Even with the two-year change France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world.

Unions fear the erosion of the cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting ax is coming down too hard on workers.

Sarkozy's government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term. France's European Union partners are keeping watch, as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes.

The new nationwide strikes were the fifth since May, including two last month that coincided with protest marches that drew at least 1 million people to the streets.

The lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, approved the reform last month. The Senate has approved the article on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but is still debating the overall reform. The bill also raises the age of eligibility for a full pension from 65 to 67.

Sarkozy, in a small concession Thursday, offered to allow women born before 1956 and who had more than three children to receive full pensions at 65.

That apparently did little to stem the strike plans.

Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard and Jamey Keaten and APTN producer Sylvain Plazy in Paris contributed to this report.