Strikes over pension reforms grip France

Ekaterina Volozova

BEIJING—(October 22, 2010—M4relay)– France experienced the fourth strike in two months against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the retirement age by two years. Trains were on half service, schools closed and gas stations ran dry, Thursday, as about 825,000 people marched in cities across France. Trade Unions however estimate that about 2.5-3 million people are participating in the strike.

The majority of French people – 71 percent in one poll – are against the plan to raise the minimum and the full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 for women and men respectively, while the government says the move is vital to stem a soaring pension deficit.

Previous protests, however, were peaceful for the most part, according to a French television channel France 24. But the strikes in France have caused a lot of trouble for the country’s airports and railway systems. The Civil Aviation authority even had to send out an advisory to airlines requiring short- and medium-haul flights to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport to arrive with enough fuel for a two-way trip. “Obviously, these instructions apply only to short- and medium-haul flights” of less than four or five hours because trans-Atlantic flights cannot “double carry” fuel”, Eric Heraud spokesman for the Civil aviation Authority told reporters.

The most recent strikes were becoming more violent, according to France 24, which has actually weakened the Labor Unions. “The unions are embarrassed by this violence, which is led by anarchist elements of the unions who want to derail any attempts to negotiate with the government,” Bernard Vivier, director of France’s Higher Institute of Labour said.

Most schools, according to the education ministry of France are closed at the moment as an estimated 14 percent of teachers are on strike. High school students are also joining the protests. According to the education ministry, 379 of the country’s roughly 3,000 high schools held protests Thursday, while students union FDIL said about 850 schools took part in the strike.

Already, about a quarter of French gas stations are running low on fuel. The government reports that fuel imports are hitting a record high as they try to keep the country moving despite the fuel blockade. France has also been forced to purchase electricity now because of protests at power stations, reported France 24.

The difficult situation in the country raises questions as to why this is causing such a hassle. “Any blockade is the consequence of the refusal of the government to open a dialogue,” Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said in an interview with RTL radio. “The government thinks it will be the winner from a radicalization,” according to France 24.

Sarkozy’s government explains that the reforms are absolutely necessary to balance the pension’s budget system by 2018. This is part of the effort to reduce the overall deficit. This year, the gap will stand at 7.7 percent of gross domestic product, reported Bloomberg Business Week. The Sarkozy government planned to cut that number to 6 percent next year. “This reform had been postponed for too long and the deadline couldn’t be push further anymore,” Sarkozy said at a press conference in Deauville, France.

As for the economic impact on the country, these protests are not going to cause a severe economic impact on the country. The Minister of Economy Christine Lagarde said that the strikes were not likely to cause a major impact on gross domestic product if it did not last too long. She urged the people protesting to think about France’s image and the need to speed up economic recovery. “I truly appeal to people’s sense of responsibility, particularly those who think it’s fun to blockade things and smash them up,” Lagarde told journalists. “It’s serious for our country because France is missing a chance to come out of the crisis under better conditions than others,” she said.

As a result of the protest, the government has made some changes to the bill, such as allowing people with difficult jobs or working mothers with three children to retire earlier, reported Bloomberg Business Week. However, the government still does not plan to change plans to increase the retirement age.

* Ekaterina Volozova is an international reporter at M4 Media

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