- Associated Press - Monday, October 25, 2010

PARIS (AP) — France’s massive strikes are costing the national economy up to $562 million each day, the French finance minister said Monday, as workers continued to block ports, oil refineries and trash incineration plants to protest a plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

France’s 12 refineries remained shut down Monday after nearly two weeks of protests despite raids last week by riot police that forced some to open access to fuel stocks. At ports in Marseille and Le Havre, dozens of tankers are still anchored offshore, waiting to unload.

Nearly 10,000 tons of garbage have been piling up in southern Marseille and its suburbs, and a garbage incineration plant outside Paris was shut down by strikers who huddled around a campfire and barbecue grills outside.

With French life expectancy increasing and the country’s debt soaring, French President Nicolas Sarkozy insists that the retirement age must be raised to save the pension system. Unions, meanwhile, see retirement at 60 as a cherished and hard-won right.

The Senate voted 177-153 on Friday to pass the pension reform, following its approval in the lower house. On Monday, a group of lawmakers from the upper and lower houses were trying to agree on the definitive version of the bill so there can be a final vote by both chambers later this week.

The bill’s passage through parliament 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 control the crucial energy sector, have been striking steadily for about two weeks.

French 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 between $280 million and $560 million. Beyond that, the strikes are damaging France’s image, she said.

Ms. 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 demonstrations against the retirement reform have brought millions into the streets, and polls have shown that a vast majority of French people support the strikers. Meanwhile, the conservative Mr. 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 Mr. Sarkozy’s performance. It was the French leader’s lowest rating since taking office in 2007 who is eyeing the 2012 presidential election.

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