startle French govt
Strikes challenge retirement age hike
Contingent of auto workers from Renault joins October 16 Paris march against plans by French government to raise retirement age. High school and university students also joined protests.
BY DEREK JEFFERS
PARISThe scope of strikes and protests against attempts by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to raise the retirement age has taken the French government by surprise.
More than 1 million people demonstrated throughout France October 19, the sixth day of national demonstrations and strikes since September 7. Legislation raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 and from 65 to 67 for those who have not worked 41 years will be voted on by the French Senate October 21.
Were young and have a hard enough time finding work, said auto worker Souleymane Seck. Im already 37 and Ive only worked for 10 years. Seck is one of 1,000 temporary workers out of a workforce of 4,000 at the Peugeot Poissy assembly plant.
The official unemployment rate in France has climbed from 7.8 percent in mid-2008 to 10 percent in July this year.
According to El País, a daily in Spain, the protests in France have taken two directions unforeseen by the French government: open-ended strikes, especially in oil and rail, and the unexpected, sudden, determined, and growing participation of high school students.
Workers in some industries hold daily assemblies to decide if they will continue their renewable strike the next day.
Top union officials have opposed calling for a general strike, instead allowing workers to decide branch by branch whether to continue the walkouts.
Oil refineries in the country have been shut down by a strike, which began October 12. Hundreds of gas stations are out of fuel and there are long lines to get gas at others. Because of a shortage, airplanes flying shorter distances have been told to bring enough fuel for round-trips.
Unionists and residents formed a human chain preventing access to the Grandpuits oil refinery east of Paris, after the government ordered 33 striking workers to reopen the plant or risk up to five years in prison.
Rail workers also began an open-ended strike October 12, successfully cutting about in half the number of passenger trains. Truck drivers have also joined the protests. Transport union official Maxime Dumont told the press, Theres impatience, the guys are saying, lets go.
In Marseille strikes were particularly widespread. Port workers there walked out September 28 against changes in work rules, a well as the retirement law.
Tens of thousands of high school and university students have joined the protests. Already 20 percent of young people between 18 and 25 are unemployed, high school student Jonas Salfati, 17, told the Militant at one of the demonstrations. This means they will have to work longer to retire, with a smaller pension.
The latest protests and strikes are the largest in France in 15 years. At the end of 1995 more than 2 million people demonstrated repeatedly against a plan by then-prime minister Alain Juppé to increase the number of years of work to qualify for retirement and to raise the retirement age for government workers. Millions more joined strikes by rail, bus, subway, gas and electric, postal, airport, garbage, and health-care workers. Juppé was forced to back down on the main pieces of his plan.
In 2003 the French government went after pensions again. More than 1 million workers demonstrated against the renewed attack, but this time the government succeeded in raising the number of years government workers must work, from 37 and a half to 40, before being eligible for a government pension.
Sarkozy reportedly told his aides that those who oppose raising the retirement age are extremists and that he is willing to face a long strike. Another one-day strike and demonstration called by the labor unions October 19 drew hundreds of thousands across France.
Seth Galinsky in New York contributed to this article.
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