French Senate passes pension bill

The French Senate has passed a controversial pension
reform bill, which has caused a series of strikes and protests around France.

The senators approved President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to
raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and it could become law as early as
next week.

Mr Sarkozy says the measure is necessary to reduce the

But hundreds of thousands have protested against what
they see as an attack on their rights.

Senators passed the motion to raise the retirement age by
177 votes to 153, after the government used a special measure known as a
guillotine to cut short the debate on the bill.

The changes would raise the minimum retirement age from
60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67.

The government says the reform is needed to save the
indebted pension system from collapse.

Unions say retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right and
say the reform is unfair to workers.

“It is not by hanging on symbols of the past that we
will remain a great nation,” labour minister Eric Woerth told the Senate
shortly before the vote.

President Sarkozy hopes the pension bill’s passage
through the Senate marks the beginning of the end of the crisis.

What happens next is that first thing on Monday, a joint
committee of Senate and National Assembly members will meet to agree on a
common text.

This final version will then be put to a simultaneous
vote in both houses of parliament Tuesday or Wednesday.

At that point, the law will have been definitively
adopted – and the government’s calculation is that much of the steam will
immediately be taken out of the protests. After all, why demonstrate against
something you can no longer change?

But for the unions and the left, it is still not the end
of the story. They say that until the law is actually promulgated – written
into the statute books – they can still force it to be dropped.

That process normally takes two or three more weeks. In
the meantime – and starting on Thursday – they will be keeping up the pressure.

The protest movement has been spearheaded by the trade
unions, although all sections of society have been represented – including

The unions have called two further days of protests on
top of the rolling strikes, on 28 October and 6 November.

The union representing students, Unef, has called a
separate day of protest for Tuesday 26 October, urging students to demonstrate
and hold sit-ins.

However, the school half-term holidays begin on Friday
night and run until 4 November, raising concerns among union members that the
protests could lose momentum.

Most of the rallies have been peaceful, but on Friday
clashes broke out at an oil refinery blockaded by workers after Mr Sarkozy
ordered riot police to get control of the facility.

Two people were hurt outside the Grandpuits refinery east
of Paris, which has been embargoed for the past 10 days.

The unions have been blockading all 12 refineries in
France in a bid to change the government’s mind.

Police also removed protesters from two fuel depots, in
Toulouse and Grand Quevilly.