French Senate passes pension bill

Protesters in Bordeaux, 22/10
Image caption As many as three million protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks

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 deficit.

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.

Fuel shortage

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.

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

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.

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Media captionVolunteers wear overalls and masks as they try to clean Marseille's streets

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it would take several days for fuel supplies to return to normal.

More than 2,000 filling stations around the country have run dry.

There are no plans yet for national fuel rationing, said transport minister Jean-Louis Borloo, but state representatives in two northern districts are already limiting how much petrol each motorist may buy.

Opponents of the bill will now have a chance to take their objections to the constitutional court, before the bill becomes law.

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