French strikes lose steam, garbage workers return

Associated Press
Garbage collectors began tackling Marseille's reeking mounds of trash in the center of Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010. Striking garbage collectors in Marseille faced 9,000 tons of garbage that have piled up in the streets in the last two weeks. The FO union voted Monday evening to end the protest out of concerns over "hygiene and safety." City authorities said it would take four to five days before France's second-largest city starts looking, and smelling, like itself. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
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France's finance minister declared that anti-austerity protests had reached "a turning point" Tuesday as garbage collectors began tackling Marseille's reeking mounds of trash and a few French oil workers halted their strike.

Nationwide protests and strikes over government plans to change the retirement age from 60 to 62 have disrupted French life and the country's economy for weeks, canceling trains, causing school closures and shutting down one gas station in four.

University students, pledging to keep the momentum going, organized demonstrations in 20 French cities Tuesday. Unions have called for another nationwide day of protests Thursday — but by then, the retirement reform will have passed its final hurdles in France's parliament.

The Senate was to hold its final vote on the plan later Tuesday.

French unions see retirement at 60 as a cherished social benefit. But President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government says raising the retirement age is the only way to save the money-losing pension system because French people are living longer. It also notes 62 is still among the lowest retirement ages in Europe.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who has estimated losses from the strikes at up to euro400 million ($557 million) a day, said Tuesday that the momentum has shifted.

"What's very important is taking responsibility — it's realizing that the economy needs to function," she told Radio Classique.

Polls have shown a majority of French people sympathize with strikers, though their attitudes are nuanced. The IFOP polling agency asked if protesters have the right to block companies, roads and fuel depots, and about 59 percent of respondents said no. The survey polled 956 people by phone last week.

In Marseille, garbage collectors faced 9,000 tons of garbage that have piled up in the streets over the last two weeks. The FO union voted Monday to end the protest out of concerns over "hygiene and safety." Authorities said it would take up to five days before France's second-largest city starts looking, and smelling, like itself.

Nine oil refineries are still blocked by strikers, but workers at France's three other plants voted to return to the job Monday. It is expected to take a few days for them to fully resume operations.

Workers who remained on strike at the strategic Grandpuits refinery near Paris said the three plants resuming operations is still not enough to prevent fuel shortages. Scores of oil tankers remained anchored outside Marseille, still unable to unload.

"It does not change the situation. It is going to be a big issue for the government," said striker Alexandre Femlak.

As senators vote on the retirement bill for a final time Tuesday, university students plan to demonstrate outside the 17th century building in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens. The lower chamber, the National Assembly, casts its ballots Wednesday — and the bill is nearly certain to pass.

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