French unions deny defeat in pension reform protests

Demonstrators against pension reform gather outside the Senate in Paris, 26 October
Image caption Protesters gathered outside the Senate in Paris

Trade unions in France have denied defeat over pension reform as strike action petered out and the bill moved closer to its final reading.

Trade union leaders insisted the fight to stop the minimum retirement age being raised from 60 to 62 was not ending, but "taking different forms".

Saying the action had lost its meaning, the government welcomed the protesters' "return to reason and dialogue".

Tuesday saw new protests but turnout was a fraction of that seen previously.

As students sought to keep the street campaign alive with marches in major cities, some key stoppages came to an end: strikers re-opened five of France's 12 oil refineries and rubbish collectors in Marseille resumed work after two weeks.

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, approved the final version of the pensions bill by 177 votes to 151, paving the way for the lower house, the National Assembly, to cast its vote on Wednesday.

The National Assembly is widely expected to pass the bill which President Nicolas Sarkozy argues is an inevitable measure in the face of France's rapidly ageing population and growing budget deficit.

The president's approval ratings have plummeted to a record low of 29%, according to a poll published last Sunday.

'Always perfectible'

Image caption Marseille has a massive waste hill to clear

As the country's petrol stations filled up again for business and Marseille's rubbish collectors began the massive task of shifting more than 10,000 tonnes of refuse, Prime Minister Francois Fillon called on any remaining strikers to back down.

While remaining defiant, union leaders appeared to accept that a turning-point had been reached in the dispute.

"We are in a new phase but a new phase does not mean everything is over," said CFDT leader Francois Chereque.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT, said the campaign was not over but would "take other forms".

"The parliamentary debate will come to an end and we'll be looking at it from another perspective, obviously," he said.

"We're not calling into question the legitimacy of parliament... but a law is always perfectible."

However, trade unions plan two more nationwide day of strikes and rallies - the first of them this Thursday, the second on 6 November - before President Sarkozy signs the new bill into law.

The National Assembly's speaker, Bernard Accoyer, said representatives of the opposition Socialist and other parties had attended a meeting of the steering committee on Tuesday for the first time since calling a boycott during the pensions debate.

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said that despite the cost of the refinery strikes, which she put this month at 200-400m euros (£178-356m, $280-560m) a day in lost production, the government did not expect 2010 growth to be knocked off course.

She welcomed the easing of the industrial action, saying: "There's no winner and no loser in this matter.

"What's very important is that people take responsibility for their actions. It's to realise that the economy needs to turn over."

'Sarko, you're finished'

In Paris, students, school children and workers marched under banners towards the Senate on Tuesday but their numbers appeared much smaller than at previous rallies.

Turnout in the south-western city of Toulouse, which has the biggest university campus outside Paris, was no more than 300, Reuters news agency reported.

However, up to 2,000 people on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion marched through the capital Saint-Denis.

A slogan reported by Reunion online newspaper Clicanoo read: "Sarko [nickname for Sarkozy], you're finished. The youth are in the streets. There is one solution - to demonstrate."

Student rallies were due to be held into the evening in cities such as Lyon and Tours, according to posts on Le Monde's website, which ran a special "student action day" live page.

However, the paper had ended its live coverage of the protests by 1727 local time (1527 GMT).

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