Eye on public support, striking French unions question just how long to protest

As French strikes over pension reform take a deeper toll, union leaders are reportedly divided over how long they can and should continue protests. The Senate today debated the proposed rise in retirement age.

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP
French protesters block the entrance of the Grandpuits refinery, east of Paris, Oct. 21. Oil workers defied the government's demand to get back to work and end fuel shortages, stepping up the fight against President Nicolas Sarkozy's retirement reforms.

French protesters today continued cat-and-mouse tactics to block fuel shipments from oil depots, as President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to punish street violence and France waits to see if momentum against pension reform will survive upcoming holidays and a Senate vote.

The French Senate today debated a rise in pension age from 60 to 62 and a full payment age rise from 65 to 67. The government appears to believe that oil shortages, the holidays, youth violence, and what is likely an affirmative vote on the pension bill will combine to suck the air out of anti-establishment strikes that date to last month.

Amid reports that lawmakers' vote may be delayed until next week, pensions minister Éric Woerth is pushing today an unusual “blocked vote” procedure in which the French Senate would vote straight up on the bill as it stands, as early as tomorrow, and not debate some 250 remaining amendments – a tactic likely to enrage the Socialists, who would be powerless to stop it.

French police since yesterday have been removing protesters blocking the nation’s 200 oil depots, only to find they show up later to re-block them. France's 12 oil refineries are closed by a radical cadre of workers requiring use of the depots. Fewer French gas stations are closed, according to Energy minister Jean-Louis Borloo, who qualified his remarks by saying the situation is “really improving, but slowly.”

Petroleum industry chief Jean-Louis Schilansky said, “The problem is to keep the depots unblocked continuously.”

Sarkozy seizes on violence to take tough line

Bus strikes were reported episodically in Toulouse, Rennes, and Lyon. The latter has been an epicenter of violence committed by younger teens, including today. Mr. Sarkozy today seized on media coverage of tear gas confrontations and shops that were ransacked in that city to push a tougher line, saying, “I saw on TV the protesters in the city of Lyon. It is a scandal; we will not let hoodlums have the last say in a democracy, a republic." He added: "This is not acceptable. They will be found, stopped, arrested, and punished … with no weakness.”

The French government today called out the Army to collect garbage that has been piling on the streets of Marseilles for nine days.

These pension strikes are sometimes characterized as an inchoate move against the Sarkozy government – but they have 70 percent public approval. However, the depth of that support and the willingness of an affluent middle class to make serious sacrifices to keep strikes going is not clear.

Union leaders, meeting today, are reportedly divided over the strike, with some willing to stop, fearing the effect of a prolonged failure. Others fear for their own legitimacy if they stop too quickly.

Today, the unions in a collective meeting decided to split the difference. They will hold a strike next Thursday, Oct. 28, and a demonstration is set for Saturday Nov. 6.

Much of the core movement is being taken up by oil workers and high school students, though some analysts question the commitment of students who will likely refuse to continue striking during upcoming holidays. Today, between 4,000 and 12,000 students marched peacefully in Paris, though the turnout was not considered significant enough to create new momentum. Government estimates have 312 of more than 4,000 high schools nationally joining the protests; the unions report a figure of 1,300.

Underlying assumptions are wrong

Hugues Serraf, a political economist and prominent blogger, told the Monitor that the movement was not sufficiently strong at its conceptual basis. “My take is that this will die out on the weekend, during the holidays.”

He said the core assumption of many students, that raising retirement age two years will sap jobs, “is nonsense as a theory. Economies don’t work like that. When you start saying you have a limited amount of jobs, well, that could just as well be turned against immigrants who take jobs. But the job market has not proven to work like this.”

Pierre Haski, editor of the online news agency Rue 89, faults Sarkozy for pushing through reforms that everyone agrees may be needed, but in a heavy-handed fashion and without negotiations with the unions, prompting a broader questioning of French society by young people.

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