World

French Senate approves raising retirement age

France's Senate has approved a contested pension reform raising the retirement age to 62 despite months of nationwide protests and strikes opposing the change.
French soldiers try to unblock the entrance of the Grandpuits oil refinery southeast of Paris on Friday. Protests and strikes opposing the government's pension reform by workers from a wide range of sectors have been taking place across France but did not stop the conservative government from pushing through the changes Friday. ((Benoit Tessier/Reuters))

France's Senate has approved a contested pension reform raising the retirement age to 62 despite months of nationwide protests and strikes opposing the change.

After 140 hours of debate, the Senate approved the reform Friday with a vote of 177-153. The conservative government, eager to get the measure passed and quell increasingly radicalized protests, cut short the debate and voting process using a special procedure.

The measure is expected to win final formal approval by both houses of parliament next week. The government said the reform is needed to save the indebted pension system from collapse. Unions said retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right and say the reform is unfair to workers.

Earlier Friday, French riot police forced open a strategic fuel refinery that had been a bastion of resistance to President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age to 62, pushing striking workers aside with shields in a bid to end gasoline shortages.

The Interior Ministry said the operation at the fuel refinery succeeded "without incident," but the CGT union said three workers were injured in the melee.

Police were carrying out regional authorities' orders to make strikers return to work at the site, run by oil giant Total SA.

Workers have been camped for 10 days in front of the site, blocking access and contributing to punishing fuel shortages. As of Friday, about 20 per cent of France's service stations were still empty, down from 40 per cent a few days ago.

Sarkozy ordered regional authorities to intervene and force open depots, accusing the strikers of holding ordinary people and the French economy "hostage."

Sarkozy said overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all. It's a choice many European governments are facing as populations live longer and government debts soar.

However, French unions say retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right, and that the working class is unfairly punished by the pension reform. They fear this reform will herald the end of an entire network of welfare benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.

Police also broke a picket line early Friday at a fuel depot in Grand Quevilly in western France. Police forced it open earlier this week, but defiant protesters had blocked it again Thursday.

The gas shortages and other disruptions caused by the conflict have hit many sectors of the economy, and Global Equities' head economist Marc Touati said it could wipe out between 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points of economic growth.

The government predicts economic growth of two per cent next year, after 1.5 per cent in 2010.

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