The French Senate has approved a hotly contested Bill raising the retirement age to 62, hours after riot police forced the reopening of a strategic refinery to help halt growing fuel shortages amid nationwide strikes and protests.
In tense balloting after 140 hours of debate, the Senate voted 177-153 for the pension reform. The measure is expected to win final formal approval by both houses of parliament next week.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government, keen to get the measure passed and quell increasingly radicalised protests, cut short the debate and voting process using a special procedure. Critics on the left called the use of Article 44-3 of the constitution a denial of democracy.
The tough stance by the government extended to strikes as French riot police forced a strategic refinery to reopen today, aiming to halt growing fuel shortages that have emptied petrol pumps around the country and risked hurting industry.
The refinery at Grandpuits had been a bastion of resistance to Mr Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age to 62.
Despite the government's efforts to conquer union resistance, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it would take several more days to end fuel shortages that are taking a toll on France's economy.
The Senate debate lasted three weeks before it was short-circuited. Legislators - mostly opposition Socialists - submitted a staggering 1,237 amendments, but Mr Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and its allies have a majority and dismissed nearly all of them.
The text now goes to a committee of seven senators and lower house lawmakers on Monday who will try to reach agreement on differences before returning the Bill to both houses for a final vote sometime next week.
Mr Sarkozy says overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all. It is a choice many European governments are facing as populations live longer and government debts soar.
But French unions say retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right, and claim the working class will be unfairly punished by the pension reform. They also fear this is just the first step in dismantling an entire network of benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.