French protests weaken but still disrupt flights

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 2:53 PM
French protests weaken but still disrupt flights

Strikes caused hassles for air travelers in France on Thursday, but nationwide street protests over a plan to raise the retirement age to 62 failed to draw the massive crowds of weeks' past _ a sign of slackening resolve among the bill's opponents.

Parliament has already approved raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but union leaders insist they will not give up their fight until conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy actually signs the bill. Still, fewer protesters followed them into the streets this time, and strikes by train and oil workers have been tapering off in recent days.

In Paris, demonstrators waved union flags and set off flares, while in southern Marseille, they beat drums and blew whistles. Past demonstrations have drawn more than a million protesters into the streets: This time, the Interior Ministry put the figure at 560,000 nationwide. The hard-line CGT union contested that number, putting turnout at 2 million.

"It's true you could say the anti-reform movement is slowing down, but you need to ask why," Serba Germain, a 67-year-old retired police officer marching in Marseille, told Associated Press Television News. "People are disappointed, they are frustrated" because the government hasn't listened.

Unions and opposition parties urged Sarkozy not to sign the law, which polls show is unpopular. He is expected to do so by mid-November, after it is cleared by France's constitutional watchdog.

Socialist leader Martine Aubry urged Sarkozy to listen to the people. "We will fight until the end," she said.

But Sarkozy has refused to back down, even amid two weeks of strikes that canceled trains, shut down oil refineries and left drivers struggling to find gasoline.

A small number of trains were canceled Thursday, but the problem was bigger for airlines. A third of flights at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport and half of those at the city's smaller Orly were canceled. Flights were expected to run as normal Friday.

Though the strikes are tapering off, the fuel shortages they caused lingered because of refinery strikes. Some 85 percent of gas stations are now open, the government said Thursday night, but added that the Paris region and central France continued to face some difficulties. Seven of the nation's 12 refineries have voted to return to work.

Special measures, like keeping 90 percent of fuel depots open, were being put in place to ensure there supplies through the coming long weekend when the French return en masse from a fall vacation, said a statement by Energy and Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.

Striking dock workers have exacerbated the shortages. Oil tankers are lined up by the dozens in the Mediterranean off the port of Marseille, waiting to unload. The Normandy port of Le Havre faces a similar situation. Dock workers have been protesting for a month, partly over the pension plan, though their central concern is port reform.

Unions see retirement at 60 as a cornerstone of France's generous social benefit system, but the government says the entire pension system is in jeopardy without the reform because French people are living longer _ an average of nearly 85 years for women and 78 for men.