Union Strikes Take A Toll On Ordinary French

For two weeks, France has been plunged into chaos as labor unions face off with the government over a pension overhaul. Unions have fought back with sporadic strikes and demonstrations that are taking a toll on the economy. Strikers have blocked fuel depots and gas is in short supply.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away this week. I'm Steve Inskeep. Mary Louise Kelly is here. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Good morning.

And we're going to start in France now, where for two weeks the country has been in chaos. Labor unions are facing off with the government over a pension overhaul. President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. The unions say no way and have fought back with strikes and demonstrations. But today the standoff showed some signs of easing, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The line of cars waiting to fill up at this downtown Paris gas station stretches all the way down the block. It's the same scene everywhere. And nearly a quarter of French pumps are dry after strikers blocked fuel depots and all 12 of the nation's oil refineries for nearly two weeks. Everyone at this station is fed up, but they disagree on who is to blame. Fifty-year-old Jean Dubois says it's Sarkozy's fault.�

Mr. JEAN DUBOIS: (Through translator) He promised he wouldn't raise the retirement age in his campaign. What he's doing is completely unpopular. This has all been very hard. We've been taken hostage by this whole thing. But I still support the strikers.

BEARDSLEY: Sculptor and entrepreneur Olivier Gerval, who is riding a motorcycle to save gas, says the strikers are completely in the wrong.�

Mr. OLIVIER GERVAL: (Sculptor) Actually, I feel it's a really disgusting attitude of these people and I feel ashamed to be French sometime, you know? It's true. (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Continuing on in French, Gerval says it's always the same thing with the strikers and their social movements. Every year they find a new reason to stop other people from working, he says. They are going to sink this country.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEARDSLEY: Over the weekend, fights broke out when police began removing strikers from oil refineries by force. Many times, as soon as the police left, strikers returned to block the refineries again.�There have also been sporadic strikes in the railways, public transport and schools. And in some places striking trash collectors have added to the chaos.

France's second largest city of Marseille has been crippled by a port and garbage strike. While dozens of tankers wait at sea, some 10,000 tons of trash have piled up in the streets. Speaking in a radio interview yesterday, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde estimated that the refinery blockades and other actions were costing the French economy up to $500 million a day. But there's another kind of harm that's being done, she said.�

Ms. CHRISTINE LAGARDE (Finance Minister, France): (Through translator) I was just in Korea for the G20 meetings and on television they were showing non-stop coverage of all the protests and violence here. That really reduces the attractiveness of our country for visitors and investors.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has stood firm through the strikes and seven nationwide demonstrations since June. The French president insists that people must stay on the job longer to save the pension system as life expectancy increases. Unions continue to insist that this discriminates against the working class and the rich are getting off.

Both sides move forward as if in parallel universes. The retirement bill will likely be approved by both houses of parliament on Wednesday. On Thursday the unions have planned another national day of protest.

Isabelle Marechal manages a small locksmith business in Paris. She says she's losing time, money and clients the longer this all goes on. But she's not sure the unions are even protesting the retirement issue anymore.

Ms. ISABELLE MARECHAL (Manager, Locksmith Business): They think really to block the situation, to just go against the government, block the economy and block the political system. They don't want any more Sarkozy.

BEARDSLEY: Last night a crack appeared in the union's defense. Marseille's garbage collectors voted to go back to work. And workers at at least two oil refineries have decided to give up the blockade. Sarkozy's hard tactics may just be paying off.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.�

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