French Senate passes pension overhaul

The vote was unlikely to end increasingly radicalised protests across France.

Paris: Under pressure from the government, the French Senate voted on Friday to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy after days of street rage, acrimonious debate and strikes that dried up the supply of gasoline across the country.

The vote all but sealed passage of the highly unpopular measure, but it was unlikely to end the increasingly radicalised protests. The coming days promised more work stoppages and demonstrations by those who feel changing the retirement age threatens a French birthright.

Sarkozy made overhauling the money-losing pension system a centrepiece of his project to modernise France. Undaunted by weeks of strikes, he ordered measures to unblock fuel depots and refineries to get gas flowing again to desperate motorists.

"History (will remember) who spoke the truth," Sarkozy declared during a visit on Friday to a factory in central France. "What do you expect of a president? That he tells the truth and does what must be done."

With about a quarter of gas stations on empty — down from a third earlier in the week — motorists have been forced to reinvent their lives, particularly at the start of a school vacation period on Saturday.

Hours before Friday`s vote, riot police forced the reopening of a strategic refinery to help halt crippling fuel shortages.

The impact on the crucial energy sector was an ominous spectre for whole sectors of the economy. Employment Minister Laurent Wauquiez said this week that 1,500 jobs have been lost daily since the strikes began in earnest on October 12.

Friday`s vote came after some 140 hours of debate, with senators casting ballots by hand into a large green urn, approving the bill 177-153. The measure is expected to win final approval by both houses of Parliament next week.

Sarkozy`s conservative government cut short the debate via a constitutional article that accelerates the process — and gives the government final word on which of more than 1,000 amendments will get into the bill. He accused strikers of holding the French and their economy "hostage”.

Speaking before the Senate vote, Labor Minister Eric Woerth said the day will come when opponents of the change "will be grateful to the president, to the government and the parliamentary majority for having had the courage to fully assume their responsibilities”.

Leftist critics called the move a denial of democracy by an increasingly confrontational president.

"No, you haven`t finished with retirement. You haven`t finished with the French," said Socialist Senator Jean-Pierre Bel, alluding to an apparently unflagging determination by unions, now joined by students, to keep protests alive — even through the upcoming week of school holidays.

Students planned to block schools on Tuesday, and unions scheduled strikes and protests for Thursday and again on November 06.

Sarkozy says overhauling the pension system is vital to ensuring benefits for future generations. Many European governments are making similar choices as populations live longer and government debts soar.

But French unions say the minimum retirement age of 60, in place since 1982, is a hard-earned right and maintain the working class will be unfairly punished. Many fear it is also a first step to dismantling an entire network of benefits, including long vacations and state-subsidised health care, that make France an enviable place to work and live.

Guy Fischer, a Communist senator, denounced the pension overhaul as "brutal, unjust and inefficient”. Like other critics, he said that under the proposal, 85 percent of costs are paid by workers, leaving companies off the hook.

The legislation phases in the new system, with retirement at 62 in force in 2018. It also raises the age for retirement with full benefits from 65 to 67.

Hours before the Senate vote, helmeted riot police in body armour shoved striking workers aside to force open the gates of the Total SA refinery at Grandpuits, east of Paris, one of four refineries in the Paris region. A bastion of resistance, Grandpuits had been shut down for nine days — one of the nations` 12 refineries on strike.

Despite the government`s efforts to conquer union resistance, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it would take several days to end gasoline shortages.

Bureau Report

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