- Associated Press - Sunday, October 24, 2010

PARIS (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest level yet amid protests over the conservative leader’s proposed pension reform that have led to gas shortages and travel chaos and closed schools nationwide, a poll suggested Sunday.

The poll, published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, showed only 29 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Mr. Sarkozy’s performance. That was down 3 percent from September and was the French leader’s lowest rating since taking office in 2007. It was also among the lowest approval ratings of any president in recent memory, the newspaper said.

The survey of 1,828 people was conducted in person and by telephone by the Ifop polling agency Oct. 14-22. No margin of error was given.

Mr. Sarkozy has tied his political fortunes to the contested pension reform, which, if it becomes law as expected next week, will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The government contends the reform is necessary to save the money-losing pension system, but the opposition insists it amounts to an attack on French workers’ hard-earned rights.

The demonstrations have brought millions onto the streets, and open-ended walkouts by railway and petroleum workers have wreaked havoc on commuters and travelers. Polls have shown a vast majority of French people support the strikers, and the protests are dragging on into their second week.

Raymond Soubie, an advisor to Mr. Sarkozy, told Europe-1 radio Sunday that gasoline shortages had eased, but he acknowledged that a quarter of France’s gas stations were still shuttered. The hardest-hit areas were the west and the Paris area, he said.

“Will the situation improve? Yes, it will, but slowly, progressively,” Mr. Soubie said in an interview Sunday.

With garbage collectors in Marseille still on strike and some 9,000 tons of rubbish piled up on the streets of the Mediterranean port city and its suburbs, the head of the region took legal steps to force some of the strikers back to work. The workers are expected to begin clearing the trash on Monday.

On Friday, the Senate voted 177-153 for the pension reform bill, which is expected to win final formal approval next week by both houses of parliament.

Mr. Sarkozy insists that with life expectancy increasing and France’s debt soaring, raising the retirement age is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pension at all. Other countries across Europe are in a similar bind, and many have taken steps to overhaul their pension systems as well.

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