French unions call for fresh strikes over pensions
PARIS (Reuters) - France's main unions called on Thursday for two further days of strike action against a planned overhaul of the pension system that has triggered the biggest and most sustained anti-austerity protests in Europe.
With a final Senate vote on the bill drawing near, the country's six main unions signaled their determination to fight on even after the passage of the legislation, calling a seventh and eighth day of protests for October 28 and November 6.
"The government bears full and total responsibility for the further protests in light of its intransigent attitude, failure to listen and repeated provocations," the unions said in a joint statement, after a day of negotiations in Paris.
Earlier on Thursday, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government said it would use a special measure to speed the reform bill's passage through the Senate with a final vote expected on Friday, to howls of foul-play from the opposition benches.
Sarkozy, a conservative who is determined to face down unions and force through an increase in the retirement age, is battling 10-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up nearly a quarter of France's fuel pumps.
His popularity at an all-time low 18 months before a presidential election, Sarkozy is fighting deep public opposition to a reform he says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension shortfall as the population ages.
"The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week," Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio. Union leaders will meet on Thursday evening to agree on fresh action.
"We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets," Thibault said.
Sarkozy's handling of the protests is being closely watched by other European governments implementing austerity measures, as well as by markets who see it as a test of whether France can enact other measures to protect its coveted AAA credit rating.
Public anger against austerity measures also flared in Greece, where some 2,000 students chanting "We want jobs not unemployment" marched through central Athens, while others wielding sticks clashed with police outside parliament.
The French president wants the bill to raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 62, and the maximum age for a full pension to 67 from 65, passed by the end of the month.
He ordered police this week to break blockades at fuel depots. On Thursday, authorities in two regions ordered rationing of fuel supplies for trucks and cars as strikers kept up the blockade of the country's largest oil port.
"We cannot be the only country in the world where, when there is a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else," Sarkozy said. "By taking hostage the economy, companies and the daily lives of French people, we are going to destroy jobs."
French media commentators seized on the contrast with Britain, which has seen no comparable mass protests despite unveiling far harsher austerity measures on Wednesday with half a million public sector job cuts and a rise in the retirement age to 66. But French unions are sticking to their guns.
"The French government is following the Anglo-Saxon economic model," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the radical Force Ouvriere union. "It has to be wary of leading us into a wall."
Students, who fear the reform will worsen youth unemployment by keeping older workers in jobs longer, hit the streets of Paris in the thousands in their first major autumn protests.
In the wealthy city of Lyon, clashes between youths and riot police, which began last week on the fringes of anti-pension protests, continued on Thursday. Sarkozy called the clashes "scandalous" and said rioters would be punished.
Business leaders are voicing concern about the blow to an economy already struggling to rebound from the economic crisis.
An Air France-KLM spokesman said the strikes were costing the airline 5 million euros ($7 million) a day and Maurice Levy, head of the world's third-biggest advertising agency Publicis, said the conflict was damaging France's image.
Brewer Brasseries Kronenbourg chief Thomas Amstutz warned beer deliveries could be hit if fuel shortages continue.
The strikes are beginning to hit tourism and cultural events ahead of half-term holidays beginning this weekend, with some travellers reconsidering holidays.
Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins canceled a debut tour with his band in Paris and pop diva Lady Gaga also postponed gigs.
Trains were returning to normal however, with three out of four intercity TGV services operating, and nearly all international trains and half of domestic ones running normally.
Opposition senators have slowed the bill's passage by handing in hundreds of amendments and demanding fresh dialogue.
Senators voted late on Wednesday for an amendment leaving the door open to review the pension system after the 2012 presidential election, a move that may appease some unions.
Street protests have largely been peaceful except for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The government said 245 people were arrested on Wednesday, taking the nationwide tally to almost 2,000 since October 12.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey Emile Picy, Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou, Marc Angrand, Patrick Vignal, Muriel Boselli and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille, Dominique Vidalon; editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Taylor)