PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved closer to victory in his showdown with unions over pension reform on Wednesday, with parliament giving its final approval to the bill and support waning for strikes and street marches.
Public transport was returning to normal, fuel was leaving depots at five oil refineries and garbage collectors in the southern port city of Marseille cleared heaps of maggot-infested rubbish after ending a two-week walkout.
A separate month-old strike at the Marseille oil port of Fos-Lavera may now become the government’s main focus as it is starving the bulk of France’s refineries of crude oil, preventing them restarting operations.
Sarkozy has kept a low profile this week as his reform, to make people work two years longer for their pensions, comes close to becoming law. It has provoked some of Europe’s fiercest protests against deficit-cutting measures.
Ahead of a 24-hour national strike planned for Thursday, CGT union head Bernard Thibault acknowledged the protest was entering a “new cycle” after the lower house of parliament signed off on revisions to the final text by 336 votes to 233.
“Tomorrow we ask for hundreds of thousands of people to call on the president of the republic not to promulgate this law,” he told France 3 television, adding that he did not see any end to the crisis.
Unions have called on airline and rail workers to strike on Thursday, meaning some flights and train services could be affected, but major disruption is not expected.
“We can see that this week marks a change,” Labour Minister Eric Woerth, in charge of shepherding the pension bill through parliament, told Canal Plus television.
Sarkozy says his bill to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 is vital to rein in a ballooning pension shortfall and safeguard the AAA credit rating that lets France service its debt at the lowest market rates.
The reform still needs to be approved by the constitutional council, where a last-minute challenge by the opposition Socialists could mean a delay of a few days, but is not expected to overturn it.
Petrol station shortages have eased after the government cleared fuel depot blockades and increased fuel imports.
Unions have called a fresh day of nationwide strikes and street marches on Thursday and another for November 6. But only a few hundred students turned out for rallies on Tuesday and momentum for the protests appears weak.
The Fos-Lavera workers, who oppose the privatisation of dock unloading operations there, will keep striking until they reach a deal with management, local CGT union representative Pascal Galeote told Reuters. “We will stay on strike as long as needed to see things move in the right direction,” he said.
“We are waiting for a signal from management. We should have one today,” local CGT representative Pascal Galeote said.
Some 80 tankers carrying crude or refined fuel were moored offshore of Fos-Lavera on Wednesday, waiting to unload.
Workers at an oil terminal at the northern port of Le Havre voted on Wednesday to extend for another day their strike against pension reform, which is keeping crude from reaching northern French refineries.
If the port strikes and street protests end, Sarkozy is expected to try to heal wounds with unions by discussing labour conditions for the young and old. CFDT head Francois Chereque and MEDEF employers’ group head Laurence Parisot agreed on a TV show on Monday that they were open to such talks.
“The concern that has been voiced has to be heard,” said Bruno Le Maire, French farm minister. But that should not be misconstrued as an apology for the reform, he added.
The ageing of populations worldwide is forcing up retirement ages. A study by national statistics institute INSEE published on Wednesday showed that by 2060 one in three French people will be over 60, compared with one in five today, and 200,000 could be over 100, up from 15,000 today.
Additional reporting by Emile Picy, Mathilde Cru, Valerie Parent, Marc Angrand and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton