France's Senate has passed pension-reform plans -- including an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 -- after President Nicolas Sarkozy's government asked lawmakers to cut short their debates on the controversial bill.
Following the October 22 vote in the Senate, both houses of parliament now need to hold a final vote on the bill before it becomes law.
Unions have scheduled two more days of strikes and protests over the next 10 days, while students, who have also joined the protests, plan to block schools on October 26.
Opposition parties in parliament had attempted to upset the passage of the bill by introducing hundreds of amendments -- a kind of filibuster strategy meant to delay formal approval of the legislation with lengthy debates.
Sarkozy's Tour de Force
On October 21, Sarkozy's government responded to the opposition's delay strategy by asking lawmakers to use a special procedure to pass or reject all remaining amendments in a single vote rather than debating and voting on each amendment separately.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy has been taking his case for pension reform directly to French workers. On a visit to a factory in Bonneval to the southwest of Paris on October 21 Sarkozy reasoned: "Young people are entering the market later and later these days because they are studying longer and that's a good thing. And older people are living longer and longer because life expectancy has increased."
He said the only solution was to "increase the duration of working life" by raising the retirement age.
Labor leaders reject Sarkozy's plan. They say they will organize more nationwide protests that would take place even after the Senate vote.
Scheduled for October 28 and November 6, the threatened protests leave France facing the prospects of at least two more weeks of disruptions and political tensions from what already are the most sustained anti-austerity protests in Europe.
France's Transportation Ministry says about one-third of the country's 12,500 gas stations have run out or are low on fuel as a result of oil-refinery strikes and fuel-depot blockades.
Jean-Luc Botella, an official from the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), blames the government for the paralyzing strikes.
"The government is responsible for the blockade today because it has not managed to organize a single round of negotiations in the last six months but instead has simply imposed a reform on us," Botella attests.
Charles Foulard, another leading member of the CGT union, rallied strikers at an oil refinery near Paris.
"Today, they're launching raids on our social benefits, raids on our pensions, raids on the exercise of our right to strike. When are they going to be rounding up union representatives? When are they going to be locking up union officials?"
Foulard lambasted the French government, "it's a grave moment for our democracy. Never, never have striking workers been [forced to return to work]. It's unacceptable, comrades. Unacceptable."
Although the protests still enjoy the support of a large majority of French people, they are increasingly cutting into the revenues of businesses. Economists say French companies may lose hundreds of million of euros as a result.
An Air France spokesman has estimated that the strikes are costing the French airline about 5 million euros ($7 million) a day. The state-owned SNCF railway companies estimates that a full-day strike costs it about 20 million euros.
The fuel shortages also are starting to affect small construction companies, which are having difficulties delivering the supplies they need. Economists say the overall economic impact of the protests is becoming more painful the longer the strikes continue.
written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports