Europe

New France pension strike but protests lose momentum

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Media captionStrikes have again taken place in France

Turnout has been relatively low in France for the latest day of strikes and protests over the government's pension reform plans.

Police said that half a million people attended demonstrations across the nation.

Public transport and services have still been disrupted.

But support for the strikes is said to be waning after the National Assembly voted to raise the pension age from 60 to 62.

The bill faces a legal challenge before France's president can sign it off.

President Nicolas Sarkozy aims to sign the bill into law in November.

Disruption

Thursday is the seventh day of action since the beginning of the dispute over pension reform.

Protest leaders hoped to organise some 270 marches across French towns and cities, the AFP news agency reported, in concert with strikes by public sector unions.

The interior ministry calculated the nationwide turnout at midday to be 198,000, but by late afternoon police estimated the figure to be 560,000.

However, the CGT union claimed almost 2 million people were on the streets - though that is still lower than the union's own estimates for turnout on 19 October.

Aviation officials say half the domestic flights at Paris's second airport, Orly, have been cancelled, and about a third at the main international hub, Charles de Gaulle.

Rail services have been less affected. Management claimed only 16.8% of railway workers were on strike, though unions say it is 26.5% - but both figures are lower than on previous occasions.

Reform inevitable

Union leaders said they had expected a lower turnout and they blamed the half-term school break.

Rolling strikes at oil refineries are also waning - only six of the 12 centres are suffering fuel blockades compared with 11 on Wednesday.

But the fuel shortage has not yet eased - the national petroleum industry body says one in five gas stations are still empty or short of gas.

Union leaders say they will pursue the protest in other ways.

However, the BBC's correspondent in Paris, Christian Fraser, says the momentum has been with the government for several days now.

He says strike leaders know the sprit of the protest has been drained by the unstoppable political process.

The final vote in parliament on Wednesday means pension reform is now inevitable - unless the president performs an unlikely U-turn, he adds.

'Unfair'

The National Assembly, France's lower house, voted the bill through by 336 votes to 233.

Image caption Protesters are launching a last-ditch attempt to overturn reform plans

The upper house, the Senate, backed the bill by 177 to 151 on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon sought to draw a line under the protests, urging opponents to respect the will of parliament.

"It was right to have a vigorous debate but the law of the Republic should henceforth be respected by all," he said in a statement.

Jean-Luc Hacquart, a representative of the CGT union in Paris, said he opposed the pension reform because it was "unfair".

"I don't want to work until I'm 67 years old and I don't want my son to be unemployed," he said, speaking at the Grandpuits oil refinery.

"That's why I'm here. It is not legitimate. They do what they want. We knew that this bill would be approved but democracy is not carte blanche given to people who do what they want in-between each election."

Opinion polls suggest that the pension battle has sent Mr Sarkozy's approval ratings to record lows of below 30%, 18 months before the next presidential election.

An Ifop poll taken last week also suggested that 59% of French people opposed the blockade of refineries, road junctions and companies by strikers.

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