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French Senate passes hotly contested pension revision

The French Senate passed a hotly contested pension revision Friday night, providing a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy and setting the stage for expected final passage by both houses of Parliament next week.

Sarkozy’s major policy initiative, which would push back the minimum legal retirement age from 60 to 62, passed by a vote of 177 to 153 with the backing of the conservative majority and some centrists.

Friday’s vote was accelerated by a government anxious to put a lid on weeks of strikes and sometimes-violent protests against the change in pension rules. Opposition Socialist Party members and other left-wing lawmakers voted against the bill.

The measure also gradually delays the age for receiving a full pension from 65 to 67, as part of a complex set of measures aimed at saving an indebted pension system aggravated by the global economic crisis.

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“This is a solemn moment” of “responsibility and courage,” said Labor Minister Eric Woerth after Friday’s debate.

The initiative has become a test of Sarkozy’s ability to push through a key policy change in a country traditionally known for its reluctance to tinker with social benefits.

Sarkozy’s government never expected left-leaning voters to easily accept the reform, which many view as an attack on their hard-won job benefits. Yet few anticipated the extent of the intense and popular strikes, which have significantly disrupted life and economic activity this week. Images of burning tires at picket lines and of scattered clashes between riot police and youths have dominated the French media.

Even if the change becomes law as expected in early November, many unions and left-leaning politicians said they had won a major political battle by staging protests that blocked oil refineries and left gas stations out of fuel; mobilized a younger generation of protesters; hampered air, rail and car transport; and brought up to 3.5 million protesters into the streets, according to their accounts. The highest government estimates hovered closer to just over 1 million participants.

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“The government can win the legal battle on this reform, but it won’t win the battle of legitimacy,” Alain Olive, leader of the National Federation of Independent Unions, said on BFM French radio.

Unions plan to hold strikes against the revision Thursday and Nov. 6, despite expectations of the bill’s final passage by Parliament early next week. The upper and lower houses must first approve a joint agreement on the final draft of the text, which is not expected to take more than one day for a special committee to accomplish.

Though some of the harder-line unions insisted that they would continue striking until the government responded to their demands, Olive suggested that the protest movement would inevitably change direction once the measure becomes law. With a school vacation planned for next week, many also anticipate a decrease in participation.

The significant impact of the strikes “has become a major problem for Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, a political analyst for the French CSA polling service. “He bet the movement would die out, and that public opinion wouldn’t favor it. They are both lost bets. That means the project is seen as unfair” by many.

This week Sarkozy promised to unblock key oil refineries and depots and to swiftly restock gas stations. On Friday, authorities forcefully commandeered a major refinery and depot at Grandpuits, east of Paris. Unions claimed three strikers were injured, but the government denied using any violence. Eleven of the nation’s 12 refineries remained blocked by strikers.

Lauter is a special correspondent.


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