French strikes end at oil refineries, major ports

AP News
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Posted: Oct 29, 2010 3:34 PM
French strikes end at oil refineries, major ports

French workers ended their strikes at all oil refineries and at strategic fuel terminals following weeks of protests over President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, unions and French officials said Friday.

The decisions bring to a close a series of walkouts that left motorists without gas and threatened to cripple the fuel-needy industrial sector.

The protest movement has been losing steam since parliament this week approved the plan to reform France's pension plan in order to keep it solvent.

Sarkozy refused to back down despite strikes and protests that canceled trains, shut down refineries and fuel depots and blocked some schools.

Workers at the last four oil refineries voted to return to the job, the CFDT union said Friday. At one point, all 12 refineries were shut down in strikes that started Oct. 12.

It can take days, or even a week, to get refineries up to full speed to produce fuel after the lengthy shutdowns, the CFDT union said. Total, which owns six of France's 12 refineries, said the startup time would vary among facilities and could run over a week at some.

The state-run train authority said Friday that all fast trains would run normally over the weekend like most other train services, a relief for travelers returning from a school vacation.

The 33-day-long strike by fuel terminal workers in the Marseille area left 80 vessels stranded in the Mediterranean, unable to unload.

"This return to work will allow the terminals at Fos-lavera, the strategic entry-point for crude oil in France, to function again and to feed and restart the refineries," said Environment and Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.

Workers in the port of Le Havre, in the northwest, were also ending their protest.

Marseille has been particularly hard-hit by the strike movement. The city is still shoveling itself out of some 9,000 tons of garbage that piled up on sidewalks during garbage collectors' strike.

France's plan to raise the retirement age looks almost certain to become law. It still must go before a council that will rule on whether it is constitutional, a move initiated by rival Socialist lawmakers.

Sarkozy said Friday that he will sign the legislation after the final challenge, while conceding, without elaboration, that some concerns are "legitimate."

Unions made a last-ditch effort to persuade Sarkozy to back down with nationwide protests and strikes Thursday. But that seventh round of protests since early September failed to rally a population weary of strikes. It was unclear whether unions would go ahead with plans for another nationwide protest Nov. 6.

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 84 years for women and nearly 78 for men.