Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

'Turning point' in French protests

Demonstrators block the entrance of a bus depot in Neuilly-Plaisance, east Paris (AP)

The French government has claimed it is winning the battle against strikers causing countrywide disruption with protests against pension reforms.

Finance minister Christine Lagarde declared the strikes had reached "a turning point" as rubbish collectors began tackling Marseille's huge backlog of waste and a few French oil workers halted their action.

Ms Lagarde, who has estimated losses from the strikes at up to 400 million euro (£357 million) a day, said that the momentum has shifted. She said: "What's very important is taking responsibility - it's realising that the economy needs to function."

The protests over government plans to change the retirement age from 60 to 62 have disrupted French life and the country's economy for weeks, cancelling trains, causing school closures and shutting down one filling station in four.

University students, pledging to keep the momentum going, organised demonstrations in 20 French cities on Tuesday. Unions have called for another nationwide day of protests on Thursday - but by then, the retirement reform will have passed its final hurdles in France's parliament.

French unions see retirement at 60 as a cherished social benefit. But President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government says raising the retirement age is the only way to save the money-losing pension system because French people are living longer.

Polls have shown a majority of French people sympathise with strikers, although their attitudes are not clear-cut. The IFOP polling agency asked if protesters have the right to block companies, roads and fuel depots, and about 59% of respondents said no.

In Marseille, binmen faced 9,000 tons of rubbish that have piled up in the streets over the last two weeks. The FO union voted on Monday to end the protest out of concerns over "hygiene and safety." Authorities said it would take up to five days before France's second-largest city starts looking, and smelling, like itself.

Nine oil refineries are still blocked by strikers, but workers at France's three other plants voted to return to the job. It is expected to take a few days for them to fully resume operations.

Workers who remained on strike at the strategic Grandpuits refinery near Paris said the three plants resuming operations is still not enough to prevent fuel shortages. Scores of oil tankers remained anchored outside Marseille, still unable to unload.