France's massive strikes are costing the national economy up to $567 million each day, the French finance minister said Monday, as workers continued to block oil refineries and trash incinerators to protest a plan to raise the retirement age to 62.
Rotting piles of garbage — approximately 9,000 tonnes of it — 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.
France's 12 striking refineries have been shut down for nearly two weeks. Although the government has forced some of them to make stocked fuel available, at least one in four gas stations in France has run dry.
President Nicolas Sarkozy stood firm amid the growing pressure, determined to reform the retirement system to ensure funds for future generations as life expectancy increases and the nation's debt soars.
'We aren't going to work on the docks until 65. It's just not possible.' —Frederic Chabert, dock worker
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.
First Marseille, then Paris?
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; 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. Strikers unblocked the town's fuel depot Monday after negotiations with regional officials.
Workers at a large Paris waste incineration plant, in their fifth day of a strike, were catching up with colleagues who have let trash pile up in Marseille, the nation's second-largest city.
"If we manage to get to a point where unfortunately Paris becomes like Marseille, covered in garbage, I think then the situation could change because Paris is France's showcase," said Olivier Nave, a 39-year-old garbage collector.
"No one wants Paris to look bad with tourists," he told Associated Press Television News.
Currently, the French capital's trash is being rerouted to several other waste treatment sites.
More protests planned
Final passage of the pension reform legislation through parliament this week has not deterred unions, which have already announced two new nationwide protests — for Thursday and Nov. 6.
A national train strike that started Oct. 12 has been tapering off, but oil refinery workers, who have been striking steadily for about two weeks, are chipping away at the economy.
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 at between €200 million ($285 million) and €400 million ($570 million). Beyond that, the strikes are damaging France's image, she said.
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.