French protest again on pensions but fatigue weighs

Further strikes disrupted rail and air transport in France on Thursday but the broader protest against plans to raise the retirement age appeared to be waning a day after parliament adopted pension reform legislation.

Flights in and out of French airports were reduced by 30 to 50 percent due to a one-day stoppage by air traffic controllers, and a rolling strike by rail workers halved some services but caused less disruption than previously to high-speed links.

Government estimates suggested nationwide marches had mustered about half the number who turned out the last time, the interior ministry putting the final turnout at 560,000, versus 1.1 million on October 19.

The CGT union said the protests had attracted about 2 million people, down from 3.5 million during the last rally.

Workers at the LyondellBasell refinery in southeast France voted to stop blocking fuel from leaving, another sign that protests that have hit petrol pumps are easing.

President Nicolas Sarkozy refused to back down when unions mounted wave after wave of strikes and nationwide street rallies in the past two months against his flagship reform.

Union leaders noted the bill has yet to be signed onto the statute books. Either way, the damage caused by the government's refusal to heed their demands will not vanish, they said.

"This will leave deep scars," Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the Force Ouvriere union, told France 2 TV, while acknowledging that the protest movement was showing "a little fatigue."

"No law can decree an end to the union struggle," Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, told Europe 1 radio.

Thursday was the seventh day of protests called by the unions against the plan to make people work two years longer for a pension, all but one of them since the start of September.

A CSA opinion survey showed the protests still enjoyed the support of about two-thirds of French people.

A separate month-old strike at the port of Fos-Lavera near the southern city of Marseille may now become the government's main focus, as it is starving many French refineries of crude oil even after workers at several of them voted to resume work after weeks of closure.

"At the national level, we are sticking with the protests over pensions, in addition to our own specific grievances over port reform," said Pascal Galeote, CGT union leader in that sector.

Plans to shake up management of French ports were already under way but got entangled with the discontent over pension reform because of overlapping concerns about the terms and conditions of employment for dockers, notably in Fos-Lavera.

Workers at the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals of Fos-Cavaou and Fos-Tonkin voted to end their strike.

Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of the oil industry federation, said about one fifth of the country's 12,500 service stations were still reporting supply difficulties, but added: "We are on the final stretch of this conflict."

The government said 85 percent of service stations were open.

Sarkozy says the legislation 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 bill got the final vote of approval in parliament on Wednesday.

It still needs to be approved by the Constitutional Council where a last-minute challenge by the opposition Socialists could delay it for a few days but is not expected to overturn it.

Petrol station shortages have eased since the government cleared fuel depot blockades and increased imports.

[Source. By Brian Love, Reuters, Paris, 28oct10]

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