French workers to step up protest

A final Senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopular bill is set to be speeded up to make sure it happens on Friday, a parliamentary source said, following pressure from the government as protests and fuel blockades sweep the country.

Sarkozy, a conservative who is determined to face down unions and force through a rise in the retirement age, is battling with 10-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up a quarter of France’s petrol pumps.

Challenge for Sarkozy
His popularity already mired at all-time lows 18 months before a presidential election, Sarkozy is fighting deep public opposition to a reform he says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension shortfall as the population ages.

“The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as soon as next week,” Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio. Union leaders will meet on Thursday evening to agree fresh action.

“We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets,” Thibault said.

Sarkozy’s handling of the protests is being closely watched by other European governments implementing austerity cuts, as well as by markets who see it as a test of how easily France can enact other measures to safeguard its coveted AAA credit rating.
Police were sent in this week on the president’s orders to break up barricades at fuel depots.

On Thursday officers removed a roadblock to Marseille airport in southwest France, erected by hundreds of striking refinery workers.

“We cannot be the only country in the world where, when there is a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else,” Sarkozy said. “By taking hostage the economy, companies and the daily lives of French people, we are going to destroy jobs.”

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