France: Strikes costing up to $557 million per day

Associated Press
A man walks past piles of garbage in Marseille, southern France, Monday, Oct. 25, 2010. France's massive strikes are costing the national economy up to Û400 million ($562 million) each day, the French finance minister said Monday, as workers continued to block ports, oil refineries and trash incineration plants to protest a plan to raise the retirement age to 62. Nearly 10,000 tons of garbage have been piling up in southern Marseille and its suburbs. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
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France's massive strikes are costing the national economy up to euro400 million ($557 million) each day, the French finance minister said Monday as workers continued to block trash incinerators to protest a plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

Rotting piles of garbage — now at nearly 9,000 tons — are becoming a health hazard in the Mediterranean city of Marseille, which has been hit hard on land and at sea. Striking dockers at France's largest port are intermittently blocking ships trying to unload fuel there.

Twelve striking refineries have been shut down for nearly two weeks, but the protest movement appeared to weaken Monday after workers at three refineries voted to end their walkout. The French oil refineries' body, UFIP, said all the country's oil depots had also been unblocked.

The oil worker's return to work is likely to ease the ongoing gasoline shortages, which on Monday still had about one in four gas stations in France shuttered.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has stood firm throughout the weekslong protest movement, insisting the reform is necessary to save the money-losing retirement system and ensure funds for future generations as life expectancy increases and the nation's debt soars.

The bill to overhaul France's pension plan is to be definitively voted on this week by the two houses of parliament, likely by Wednesday, officials said after a meeting of a committee that wrote a final version of the legislation to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It is all but certain to pass.

"We must be aware that in a world without borders we can't have a French exception ... that exists nowhere else," said lawmaker Pierre Mehaignerie, of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Strikers were clearly counting on derailing the measure before it is signed into law after this week's final voting.

Garbage and gas are critical weapons for the strikers, who decry the reform as unjust. Besides raising the minimum retirement age to 62, it increases the age to access full retirement benefits from 65 to 67. It was only in 1982 that French employees won the right to retire at 60, and since then it has been considered a well-earned right.

"We aren't going to work on the docks until 65. It's just not possible," said Frederic Chabert, 47, at Fos-sur-Mer, a Marseille area port.

Workers at a large Paris waste incineration plant, in their fifth day of a strike, were catching up with colleagues who have let trash pile up in Marseille, the nation's second-largest city.

"If we manage to get to a point where unfortunately Paris becomes like Marseille, covered in garbage, I think then the situation could change because Paris is France's showcase," said Olivier Nave, a 39-year-old garbage collector.

"No one wants Paris to look bad with tourists," he told Associated Press Television News.

Currently, the French capital's trash is being rerouted to several other waste treatment sites.

Marseille has requisitioned workers to try to clean up some of the mounds of filth after warning Friday of a "growing risk for people's safety." The regional prefect, Michel Sappin, spoke last week of "a pre-epidemic situation."

Final passage of the pension reform legislation through parliament this week has not deterred unions, which have already announced two new nationwide protests — for Thursday and Nov. 6.

The strikes have hit a wide swath of the economy and life in France, sporadically in some cases, like at schools and post offices. A national train strike that started Oct. 12 has been tapering off, but oil refinery workers, who had been striking steadily for about two weeks, are chipping away at the economy.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said on Europe-1 radio that it was difficult to put a daily price tag on the strikes, but she estimated it at between euro200 million ($278 million) and euro400 million ($557 million). Beyond that, the strikes are damaging France's image, she said.

Lagarde said foreign news stations were constantly playing clips of the French protests.

"The territory's attractiveness is put into question when you see images like that," she said.

The gas-dependent trucking industry is among the sectors suffering. Nicolas Paulissen, deputy head of the French trucking industry body FNTR, said the industry was losing money due to lost business and an "explosion of costs." He said it was too early to pin down a figure.

The demonstrations against the retirement reform have brought millions into the streets, and polls have shown that most French people support the strikers. Meanwhile, the conservative Sarkozy's popularity is plummeting.

A poll published in Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed that only 29 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Sarkozy's performance. It was the French leader's lowest rating since taking office in 2007.

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Associated Press business writer Greg Keller and APTN reporters Ben Barnier in Paris and Don McCaughan in Fos-sur-Mer contributed to this report.

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