Strikes costing France up to $557M per day

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
A man walks past piles of garbage Monday in Marseille, France. Nearly 9,000 tons of garbage have been piling up in southern Marseille and its suburbs as workers strike in protest of the government's plan to raise the retirement age to 62. (Laurent Cipriani ~ Associated Press)

PARIS -- France's massive strikes are costing the national economy up to $557 million each day, the French finance minister said Monday as workers continued to block trash incinerators to protest a plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

Rotting piles of garbage -- now at nearly 9,000 tons -- are becoming a health hazard in the Mediterranean city of Marseille, which has been hit hard on land and at sea.

Striking dockers at France's largest port are intermittently blocking ships trying to unload fuel there.

Twelve striking refineries have been shut down for nearly two weeks, but the 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 weekslong 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.

"We aren't going to work on the docks until 65. It's just not possible," said Frederic Chabert, 47, at Fos-sur-Mer, a Marseille area port.

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