Retirement strikes costing France US$557mil per day


PARIS: France's massive strikes opposing changes in the country's pension system showed some signs of weakening when Marseille garbage collectors and workers at three oil refineries voted to end their walkouts.

But the French finance minister announced that the strikes are costing the national economy up to €400 million ($557 million) each day, as workers continued to block other oil refineries and some trash incinerators to protest the plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

Rotting piles of garbage — now at nearly 9,000 tons — are becoming a health hazard in Marseille, and trash collectors there explained their decision Monday to suspend their 2-week- long walkout as a response to the mounting hygiene problems in the Mediterranean city.

"There's not a wide health risk on the city, but we have noticed a worsening of hygiene and security problems," the head of the FO-Territoriaux union said at a news conference Monday. "We're a responsible union."

Twelve striking refineries had been shut down for nearly two weeks, but their protest movement appeared to weaken Monday after workers at three refineries voted to end their walkout. The French oil refineries' body, UFIP, said all the country's oil depots had also been unblocked.

The oil workers' return to work is likely to ease the ongoing gasoline shortages, which on Monday still had about one in four gas stations in France shuttered.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has stood firm throughout the weeks long protest movement, insisting the reform is necessary to save the money-losing retirement system and ensure funds for future generations as life expectancy increases and the nation's debt soars.

The bill to overhaul France's pension plan is to be definitively voted on this week by the two houses of parliament, likely by Wednesday, officials said after a meeting of a committee that wrote a final version of the legislation to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It is all but certain to pass.

"We must be aware that in a world without borders we can't have a French exception ... that exists nowhere else," said lawmaker Pierre Mehaignerie, of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Strikers were clearly counting on derailing the measure before it is signed into law after this week's final voting.

Garbage and gas are critical weapons for the strikers, who decry the reform as unjust. Besides raising the minimum retirement age to 62, it increases the age to access full retirement benefits from 65 to 67. It was only in 1982 that French employees won the right to retire at 60, and since then it has been considered a well-earned right.

Workers at a large Paris waste incineration plant, in their fifth day of a strike, were catching up with colleagues who have been letting trash pile up in Marseille, the nation's second-largest city.

"If we manage to get to a point where unfortunately Paris becomes like Marseille, covered in garbage, I think then the situation could change because Paris is France's showcase," said Olivier Nave, a 39-year-old garbage collector.

"No one wants Paris to look bad with tourists," he told Associated Press Television News.

Currently, the French capital's trash is being rerouted to several other waste treatment sites.

Final passage of the pension reform legislation through parliament this week has not deterred unions, which have already announced two new nationwide protests — for Thursday and Nov. 6.

The strikes have hit a wide swath of the economy and life in France, sporadically in some cases, like at schools and post offices. A national train strike that started Oct. 12 has been tapering off, but oil refinery workers, who had been striking steadily for about two weeks, are chipping away at the economy.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said on Europe-1 radio that it was difficult to put a daily price tag on the strikes, but she estimated it at between €200 million ($278 million) and €400 million ($557 million). Beyond that, the strikes are damaging France's image, she said.

Lagarde said foreign news stations were constantly playing clips of the French protests.

"The territory's attractiveness is put into question when you see images like that," she said.

The gas-dependent trucking industry is among the sectors suffering. Nicolas Paulissen, deputy head of the French trucking industry body FNTR, said the industry was losing money due to lost business and an "explosion of costs." He said it was too early to pin down a figure.

The demonstrations against the retirement reform have brought millions into the streets, and polls have shown that most French people support the strikers. Meanwhile, the conservative Sarkozy's popularity is plummeting.

A poll published in Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed that only 29 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Sarkozy's performance. It was the French leader's lowest rating since taking office in 2007. - AP

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