French Protests Over Pension Weaken

Unions in France held another day of action on Thursday, but there are signs that their attempt to stop an increase in the retirement age might have been defeated. Both houses of parliament have approved the measure, which now only requires the president's signature to become law. Meanwhile some fuel refineries have reopened, and transport and garbage collection services are reported to be getting back to normal.

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To France now, where protestors took to the streets again today in another demonstration against government plans to raise the retirement age. Hundreds of thousands took part in stoppages and protests across the country. But it seems for many, enthusiasm is waning. The French parliament has now approved the change and President Nicolas Sarkozy will soon sign it into law.

From Paris, NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Albert Tshizubu is 31 and unemployed. He's been abroad recently, so he missed the mass demonstrations over pension reforms in France over the last couple of months.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: Today, though, he's determined to take part. He says it's his duty to protest a law that he thinks is being imposed on the French public without consultation.

Mr. ALBERT TSHIZUBU: It concerns everyone here in the country, so I guess the people should've been asked what they think about it. I was kind of expecting a referendum or votation about this question.

REEVES: Tshizubu has come to the center of Paris to join the largest of the demonstrations organized nationwide today by trade unions and opposition parties. He's surrounded by thousands of people brandishing flags and balloons, chanting slogans and singing.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: The turnout's considerably lower than recent mass protests held here over the same issue. Yesterday the French parliament finally approved the new law that raises the age for receiving a full pension to 67 and sets the minimum retirement age at 62. Tshizubu insists this does not mean the battle is lost.

Mr. TSHIZUBU: Even though the law passed, people are still on the streets. The problem is not solved, so, no, no, nothing's been won - nothing's been lost yet.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: For all the shouting, some protestors admit they are running out of steam. They include Bruno Dormeau.

Mr. BRUNO DORMEAU: We think that it's the last time to say that we are not okay with the reform.

REEVES: Does that mean that you have lost?

Mr. DORMEAU: Until this time I think we have lost. But maybe the socialists will be again on the government in two years and some of them said that they will come back on this law.

REEVES: The French government reckons the turnout at protests around the country today was about 560,000, half that of the last big day of action. The unions said it was more than three times that, but admitted numbers were down, partly because of school holidays. Flights and trains were again disrupted.

Olivier Ferrand from the think tank Terra Nova believes the protest movement against pension reforms is fading for a reason.

Mr. OLIVIER FERRAND (Terra Nova): What's the purpose of a union? That's to negotiate. There is no one willing to negotiate in this government. The government doesn't want to negotiate any (unintelligible).

REEVES: Ferrand expects the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to claim this as a big political victory but says that wouldn't in fact be true.

Mr. FERRAND: Eighty percent of the French citizens are against the substance of the reform. Nicolas Sarkozy has the lowest polls ever since 1960. And that's partly justified by the mishandling of the pension reform.

REEVES: Sarkozy faces other difficult issues. Among them a strike over government reform at a port near the southern city of Marseille, where deliveries of crude oil are being disrupted.

Political analyst Nicole Bacharan expects more confrontations with the government.

Ms. NICOLE BACHARAN (Political Analyst): It's absolutely not the end of the social battles. I think there are many, many more to come because the French do have some real, very serious trouble and unemployment is high, salaries are low, pensions are very small. So there are a lot of social battles coming ahead.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Paris.

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