Paris —With French senators set to vote tonight on a contentious pension law, the Sarkozy government’s battle with protesters intensified today in an attempt to restore oil supplies.
The law, which would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 in a bid to rein in massive deficits, has sparked two months of public anger. It has also set off persistent strikes that have threatened the country’s oil supply – but retained widespread public support.
Today, the government used force for the first time to open a key oil refinery that supplies Paris. Working out of a crisis center at the energy ministry, French authorities are directly controlling the distribution of oil in an effort to relieve concerns about the nation’s reserves.
Completed Bill Would Coincide With Holiday Travel
After 130 hours of debate over the pension law, the French Senate appears ready to vote the law straight up without debating hundreds of side amendments.
The bill would then go back to the French Assembly for almost certain acceptance on Wednesday – though a center-right coalition in the Senate has placed an amendment ensuring the details of the pension plan will be debated again in 2013.
A completed bill would come at the outset of a two-week French school holiday, and the Sarkozy government’s crisis team has placed a priority on refilling gas stations’ tanks along the nation’s highways to allow families to travel.
Authorities said yesterday the fuel situation is improving with only one of five, rather than two of five filling stations empty.
Nearly 70 Percent Public Support for Strikes
French union leaders, trying to prolong the strike without creating a backlash among the public, have called for two more days of protest – a strike next Thursday, and a demonstration on the first Saturday in November. In addition, France’s main student union has called for demonstrations on Tuesday.
Their position has been steadied somewhat by a new poll showing that nearly 70 percent of French still support workers and public service employees who have opposed the pension law as part of a wide-spread castigation of the policies and approach of an unpopular administration.
The Sarkozy government vowed yesterday to begin tougher measures with rioting youth, as well as those protesters that threaten oil supplies. French police early this morning used force at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris, with three protesters suffering wounds.
A more radical core of oil workers until now blocked all 12 refineries, which have been shut. Reportedly, nonstriking refinery workers will be brought in to run Grandpuits.
This week, as well, French security forces have been opening oil depots more loosely blocked by protesters in order to release some four weeks of reserves.
Union Leaders Will Have to Work a Fine Line
Much of the French public so far has not experienced serious disruptions. Paris metros, buses, cafes and restaurants, and public administration have continued. Analysts say the unions have remained relatively unified.
Once the bill passes and the school holidays kick in, however, union leaders will have to walk a fine line between cadres who want to continue striking and those that do not. To this end, the two days of demonstrations called on Thursday are considered a compromise.
One more hard-line leader, Jean-Claude Mailly, told French radio today that, “The protests are not stopping, we just have different views on how to proceed…We still think that demonstrating is not enough … we have to ramp it up … we need a strong day of public and private sector strikes.”
Editorials in French newspapers are split over the strikes. Financial organs like Les Echoes say the costly French social system is so ossified that efforts to reform its pension system, running billions in deficit, merely dramatizes the problem.
The left-leaning Liberation, while agreeing that pensions need reforming, would take a different approach: “The government, of course, is right in wanting to rebalance our retirement system. But the reform’s unfairness is clear in the eyes of a wide swath of the population, which supports the protest movement without letting up.”