French strikers begin to retrench after Senate finalized pension bill

France's Senate finalized a bill raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 today as oil workers and students begin to back away from protests over pension reforms.

Thibault Camus/AP Photo
Riot police officers watch trucks prior to filling up their tanks at the Grandpuits refinery, eastern Paris, Monday Oct. 25. French riot police forced open a strategic fuel refinery last Friday that strikers blocked to protest the government's bid to raise the retirement age to 62.

Strike season in France appears to have ended with a whimper.

The French Senate today finalized a vote on pension reform, a college students' strike barely materialized, and workers at five of France’s 12 oil refineries voted to start work again.

After a month of protests, which created excitement and temporarily immobilized parts of the country, union leaders appeared largely unified on a deal to call off the walkouts in exchange for further debate on unemployment aspects of pension reform.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde paid “tribute” to the change of spirit among strikers and demonstrators, calling it a “return to reason and dialogue.”

Much of the momentum for the pension reform protest was fueled by the growing unpopularity of the Nicolas Sarkozy government. While many French opposed raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and increasing the age to retire with full benefits from 65 to 67, many also felt it was done unilaterally and without sufficient negotiation with union leaders.

STORY: Europe's 5 most generous pension systems

Mr. Sarkozy, meanwhile, is hoping to reshape his image in France by taking over the reins of the G-20 next month and through a pending cabinet reshuffle that has been rumored about for months.

While nearly 70 percent of the French public have supported the motivation behind the strikes – it became clear that that support went only so far. Polls today by the independent IFOP agency in Paris show that nearly 60 percent of French did not support the fuel blockades that became the most visible symbol of the strikes.

IN PICTURES: French retirement strikes

Raymond Soubie, Sarkozy’s social adviser and a key architect of a plan to raise retirement ages in order to pay for a pension system already billions in debt, told French media earlier this week that, "There is no victor nor vanquished. This reform will go through. It is a victory for France and the French."

Sarkozy's low ratings

Sarkozy, the ebullient French leader, now faces the lowest approval rating of any French president in 50 years, ahead of elections in 2012. Socialist party leaders have wasted no time in pointing out that the weakening of Sarkozy is a triumph of its own.

"What we have to do is to allow this anger, which could not find its social, parliamentary result, to find its political translation in 2012," Francois Hollande, a possible presidential contender and former socialist leader, told French radio this morning.

While French high school students, who were rallied by the left during the current strike season, college students were notably absent. Last Friday, after missing much of the strike, the college students' union voted for a mobilization today. Only a handful of France’s 83 universities, however, reported any walkouts.

Lingering protests

Outside the French Senate today, as the final passage of a pension bill took place, about 1,000 people protested. That's a dramatic decrease from the past month.

With only 5 percent of French workers unionized, union leaders appear to be looking for a face-saving way to back off from the strikes. Today it appeared the Sarkozy government gave them one – a lengthy debate over the most sensitive aspects of pension reform in exchange for ending the strike.

Prime Minister François Fillon told ruling party that, “We will come out of this crisis by promulgating the law, and then we will propose the unions to engage a dialogue on youth and seniors' employment…. We are in the process of making it through this social crisis but the situation remains difficult."

On Monday evening Bernard Thibault, head of the largest CGT union, said “our determination remains intact” and that "this is not over, the movement against the pension reform project will continue and it will take other shapes.”

The eight major French unions have called for a final strike and protest on Thursday.

STORY: Europe's 5 most generous pension systems

IN PICTURES: French retirement strikes

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