Monday, October 25, 2010

Government warns French strike threatens recovery

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy\'s government warned Monday that strikes against pension reform have cost up to three billion euros and threaten to derail France\'s still fragile economy recovery.

Lawmakers are expected to sign a bill increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 this week, but trade unions have called another strike for Thursday and ongoing protests around the country have triggered fuel shortages.

\"Today, we shouldn\'t be weighing down this recovery with campaigns that are painful for the French economy and very painful for a certain number of small and medium-sized businesses,\" warned Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

Speaking to Europe 1 radio, Lagarde estimated that the strikes were costing the economy between 200 and 400 million euros per day.

An official in her ministry told the pro-government daily Le Figaro that this figure applies to each in a series of eight one-day stoppages, for a total bill of 1.6 to 3.2 billion euros (2.25 and five billion dollars).

Lagarde also warned that images broadcast around the world of demonstrators clashing with riot police and of industrial sites blocked by protesters had cost France dear in terms of its international image for investors.

\"It\'s the attractiveness of our territory that\'s at stake when we see pictures like that,\" she complained, adding that ongoing strikes at refineries and fuel depots were also taking a toll.

\"It\'s obvious that the petrochemical sector in particular, which needs large supplies of hydrocarbons, is suffering,\" she said.

The Senate approved Sarkozy\'s fiercely-contested pensions bill on Friday, and the versions passed by the lower and upper house were reconciled on Monday, opening the way for it to be formally voted into law by Wednesday.

Sarkozy\'s supporters hoped that the near-inevitability of the law passing, and the advent of this week\'s half-term school holidays, would see the protest movement begin to fade away over the coming days.

But trade unions remain defiant and have called more strikes and rallies.

On Tuesday, students plan to hold a day of protests at their universities, and on Thursday labour leaders have called for their ninth one-day stoppage.

This will be repeated on November 6 if Sarkozy does not withdraw the law or open negotiations, but there seems little chance of that, with the president\'s camp describing its passage as \"a victory for France and the French.\"

Meanwhile, protests continued around France on Monday.

Rail travel has returned to almost normal, with four out of five TGV expresses running, but several fuel depots remain blocked by strikers despite the presence of large numbers of riot police.

In the southern cities of Toulouse and Marseille strikes continue in the public sector, with bus services and garbage removal hit in particular.

Police freed up access to three fuel depots on Monday, but the Union of Independent Petrol Importers (UIP) said the situation was still difficult as one in three filling stations was not fully supplied.

\"As there was no petrol station resupply yesterday and the increase in weekend business, particularly on the motorways, was intense, this morning we have a slightly tense situation,\" said spokesman Alexandre de Benoist

Sarkozy hopes that if he faces down the protests and pushes through an unpopular reform he will restore his image as a strong leader among right-wing voters and launch a fight back ahead of his reelection battle in 2012.

So far, however, there is little sign of that, with this weekend\'s opinion polls showing him more unpopular than ever, with his personal approval rating falling below 30 percent for the first time in an IFOP survey.

Sarkozy defends the measure as \"inevitable\" in the face of France\'s rapidly growing population and burgeoning budget deficit, but opponents accuse him of making workers pay while protecting the rich and the world of finance.

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