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French retirement reform passes; Fillon kept as PM; strikes for Nov. 23

November 14th, 2010 No comments

I write for Bonjour Paris and this week have this article about the French retirement reform passing. Be sure to check out Bonjour Paris.

Excerpts from my article below:

After two months that saw many days of strike action (sometimes marred by violence) by unions, schools and others opposed to the French government’s retirement reform, it has become law. President Nicolas Sarkozy had given ground on certain areas, such as easing pension requirements for working mothers and those who work in arduous, labor-intensive jobs.

But he did not give in to union demands to keep the retirement age at 60 and the age for full pension at 65, instead remaining determined to raise these to 62 and 67, respectively. Business newspapers give an in-depth look into the details of the pension law (in French).

In the end he succeeded, despite strike action, because of many factors including a special parliamentary procedure that did not allow for debate on each amendment and thus facilitated voting on the proposed bill in the Sénat and Assemblée Nationale. Another reason is that strikes in France do not have the power they used to, with a legal minimum service in schools and in transportation making life less difficult for everyday people. The Paris metro operated during the heat of the strike.

He succeeded in this reform where past French presidents attempting it had failed because of giving in to strike pressure. But what has this done for his popularity and chances of being re-elected in 2012?

The BBC reports that it has certainly undermined his approval ratings.

In the midst of this lack of popularity, Sarkozy is planning a TV address on Nov. 18 to announce a cabinet reshuffling, with Prime Minister François Fillon being kept in place (having been reappointed to the position today after resigning from it only yesterday) but other ministers to be changed, a traditional move by the presidency to regain popularity. But the unions are still calling for strike action Nov. 23. Although aware that they will likely accomplish nothing against what is already law, they are already preparing action on other measures to keep momentum going, like work insurance, complementary pensions, youth unemployment problems, etc.

For now, Sarkozy has won the battle. But will he win the war? We’ll have to see. The definitive answer will come in 2012.

Bonjour Paris – French strikes update

October 30th, 2010 No comments

I write for Bonjour Paris and this week focus on an update on the French strike situation and the government pension reform. It looks like the strike action is down, after relatively low turnout on Oct. 28, but Nov. 6 strikes are still planned, and some public transport will still be disrupted. For flights, best to check with your airline company beforehand that your flight is still on schedule. I will update my blog accordingly too. Excerpts below:

from Figaro

Logistically, how is France faring now? Oil refineries are opening back up, as workers are heading back to their jobs after strikes blocked the refineries around the country. All 12 refineries will be open now. But as of Thursday there were still about 20% of service stations with a shortage of fuel, thereby impacting those taking the long Toussaint weekend for travel.

There were minor disturbances on the transport systems of the major cities in France and on the SNCF railways, but overall there was less action this time around. Indeed, even the liberal Libération conceded a weak turnout, saying the movement “was on leave” but that the unions would likely strike back again. But conservative Figaro says that given the low turnout, there are doubts about the momentum of the movement. Figaro also put out a great graphic comparing retirement systems across countries.

So far, strike action is still planned for Saturday Nov. 6. I will update my blog on the strike situation for transport, and you can also find information on SNCF here and other info from France 24. If you are flying, call your airline company for specific information on flight cancelations and delays. For public transport options from Paris airports to downtown, check out this site, knowing that during strikes, it is best to avoid the RER B and opt for another choice.

To end, I leave you with two insightful pieces – albeit from an “Anglo-Saxon” perspective – about the French strikes. The first one from BBC News compares strikers in France to those in other countries. Then The Economist writes that strike action is less powerful than it used to be: “Mr Sarkozy took a bet that there was a silent majority prepared to accept change, however much they disliked it. It looks like paying off.”

A cultural comparison: French strikes v. American perspective

October 23rd, 2010 9 comments

I found this BBC article by Matthew Price, former US correspondent and current Europe correspondent, to be especially insightful, from the perspective of a neutral Brit regarding Americans and France. Comments welcome. Excerpts below….

What would Americans think of the French strike?
Saturday, 23 October 2010
By Matthew Price
BBC News, France

‎”For the last three years I have been based in the US. And the only protests I have covered, the only ones vocal enough to have been worth reporting on, have been angry mobs demanding the government stop spending and get out of their lives.

Now, just one week into my new role as Europe correspondent, I am faced with angry mobs demanding the exact opposite – an end to government cut backs and a promise that the state will continue to provide for them. Talk about a change of scene…..

…Most French know the world has changed since the days of the all-embracing welfare state..They know the age of austerity inevitably implies an age of personal responsibility….And personal responsibility is something the Americans I have lived among for the last three years have adopted as a way of life…”

French Senate approves retirement reform bill

October 22nd, 2010 No comments

This just in…after all the action these past few weeks, the government was able to get the bill passed by the Senate this evening. This note from BBC News below. Also check out this article from conservative Le Figaro and also this one from leftist Libération.

They have adopted the bill, and the reform will likely be voted on definitively by Tuesday or Wednesday next week, bringing this into law perhaps within the week. BBC gives another great article here about what the reform and strikes mean for Sarkozy and France. We will see how the planned strikes for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6 play out…

“The French Senate has passed a controversial pension reform bill, which has caused a series of strikes and protests around France. The senators approved President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and it could become law as early as next week.

Mr Sarkozy says the measure is necessary to reduce the deficit. But hundreds of thousands have protested against what they see as an attack on their rights.

Senators passed the motion to raise the retirement age by 177 votes to 153, after the government used a special measure known as a guillotine to cut short the debate on the bill…”

Lyon calming down but police still maintaining order

October 22nd, 2010 No comments

According to Lyon newspaper Le Progrès, order is being enforced in downtown Lyon by over 700 special operations SWAT police with water canons, as the violent clashes of recent days have calmed down. However there were still protests and demonstrations today, disrupting traffic on the TCL public transport system. For those of my friends in Lyon, feel free to comment on developments there. I hope the situation improves, it’s a wonderful city I cherish that is getting a bad image abroad now thanks to thugs taking advantage of protests that are founded on economic nonsense; bon courage everyone. I’ll update you on developments.

This just in: French strikes continued for Oct. 28, Nov. 6

October 21st, 2010 No comments

The unions have announced two new “days of action” for Thursday Oct. 28 and Saturday Nov. 6; that’s right, a weekend again. I’ll be sure to update you more on developments as they come along. For now, I can share with you a site against the strikes, Stop La Grève, who reports being attacked by unionists at the Reims train station. Thanks for the violence, your undermining your own cause.

France still under strike tension with increasing violence

October 21st, 2010 3 comments

Environ 1 200 personnes ont convergé vers la Guillotière. Certaines en ont profité pour se défouler / Stéphane Guiochon (Le Progrès)

So “la révolution” continues. More like an increasingly violent rebellion lead by stubborn individuals who do not seem to understand the principles of economics. But la vie continue, and the government will eventually win. I certainly understand frustration with Sarkozy and his administration, as they have not been exactly stragetic in their communications, and financial corruption within undermines their image (like l’affaire Bettencourt, etc.) but the underlying truth is that retirement reform is needed, and 62 is quite a modest start. Here is a guide about how the reform will likely affect you.

President Sarkozy is still planning on facilitating the labor market to boost employment, so those concerned with unemployment are right to raise their voices, but they should not be disrupting the economic activity and well-being of the country; there are other means of communication than provocation in the street and taking the country hostage. For now, here is an update on the situation…

Violent incidents continue between protesters and police in Lyon’s downtown Presqu’île district, and you can see more coverage of this here and here by the local Lyon newspaper Le Progrès. The TCL public transport system is still shut down in the downtown area, for security measures. According to a Lyon Le Progrès poll, 65% of respondents think that the strike movement will not end soon. You can see pictures of the Lyon action here.

Meanwhile in Marseille, the airport was blocked this morning by strikers in addition to other disturbances throughout the city (public transport and ports blocked, garbage not collected…pictures from Marseille courtesy of BBC.) This action and others have disrupted daily life for many French, and even Lady Gaga has decided to postpone her Paris shows from Oct. 22-23 to Dec. 19-20. On the Paris RER suburban rail network, there were spontaneous disruptions throughout Thursday despite overall improvements on the RATP public transport system (with some disruptions, look under “traffic”) and the SNCF national railway system (though there are still delays). Fuel shortages still persist, with over 25% of gas stations empty, almost 2000 more short on products and this could disrupt Toussaint (All Saints) vacation weekend Nov. 1. But the situation is gradually improving with government forces intervening to gain access to fuel depots.

Meanwhile, national buffoon and desparately in need of a haircut, Bernard Thibault (leader of the CGT union) has called for a new day of strikes next week. They are planning to announce the 1st day for next week, either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and the 2nd day of strikes would be either Saturday Oct. 30 or Sat. Nov. 6. Now they’re striking on the weekends, that’s just great. If they strike on the holiday weekend, there just might be an insurrection against the SNCF.

Students, both university and high school, are becoming increasingly involved in the strikes and demonstrations (and violence), with hundreds of schools blockaded throughout the country and up to 10 universities blocked as well.

What is happening in the government?

They are trying to accelerate the reform currently being debated in the Senate, with the text to be reviewed by Friday evening, 254 amendments awaiting validation at the time of publication, and a commission of 7 National Assembly Deputies and 7 Senators, to vote on the entirety by next Thursday Oct. 28th at the latest. They have shown a willingness to discuss certain measures, notably a point system for pensions, to please unions like the CFDT, but this does not satisfy everyone.

Sarkozy remains firmly opposed to violent demonstrators, saying “they will not have the last word” and almost 2000 have been arrested since Oct. 12.

The New York Times covers this story well.

I’ll keep you updated.

French strikes go into overdrive

October 19th, 2010 10 comments

Following on my post about Oct. 19 planned strikes, they are well underway across the country. You can see specials in New York Times as well as here too with pictures, BBC News, Libération, and Figaro. BBC even has Q&A about the strikes. English translations of French press commentary can be read here. BBC has pictures here.

France 24 has a travel survival guide posted as well, stating that disruptions could continue for the rest of the month. I’ll be sure to keep you informed.

Paris metro and suburban rail line updates can be found on the RATP website. At the time of this posting, metro line traffic was getting back to normal, but bus lines were still disrupted. RER trains are running 2 out of 3 for the RER A, 1 out of 2 for RER B (the Charles de Gaulle Airport line).

You can see the status of your trains in Ile de France (Paris region) for RER trains on this website. You can get more info on SNCF trains here. You can find information for other metro areas transport below, mostly in French. You can see the status of departures and arrivals in the main train stations at Gares en Mouvement website.

Aéroports de Paris (which runs Orly, Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais airports) said to expect possible delays, cancellations and other inconveniences on Oct. 19 and after. Check with your airlines, as some were asked to cancel flights.

Other major cities and their transport systems below with relevant updates:
Lyon, Grenoble, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille, Nice, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Brest, Caen, La Rochelle, Le Havre, Montpellier

You should know as well that almost 3000 gas stations at supermarkets (50% of supermarkets) are almost or completely out of fuel, as fuel depots are blocked around the country by strikers. 4000 stations are being affected by a slowdown in provisions, but François Fillon says there should be a “return to normal in the next four to five days.” Sarkozy said he will respond “with force” to get the economy back going. In the meantime, here are some tips about how to find a station.

BBC posted this info from the IEA concerning the fuel shortage:

-France, like other European countries, has at least 90 days of oil reserves
-Emergency reserves are held by oil industry and last for 30 days
-Strategic reserves are controlled by the government and last for 60 days
-The reserves are divided between crude and “oil products” – petrol, diesel and heating oil
-The reserves are held at France’s 12 refineries and 100 oil depots

It seems the participation at midday is down from last week, but it is still quite significant. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon are determined to pass the reform, with Sarkozy calling it his “duty”. The reform is set to be voted on by the French Sénat tomorrow. Figaro has a fantastic, detailed chart of what the reform proposes. As you will see, fonctionnaires remain the aristocracy of France, weighing on pensions even more.

In addition to transport, some schools are closed as well as the post offices. 400 high schools are blocked on strike around the country (including the one next to my apartment), with violence breaking out at some like in Nanterre. There were some quite vulgar signs and banners that I will not detail here, but one could say that the lycéens are not happy. Youth feel like raising the retirement age will be to their detriment, not only for working longer but also for leaving older people in jobs that they feel could prevent them from getting jobs. But that is only if the economy cannot diversify and produce jobs for young graduates.

Since Socialist president François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 in 1981, the unemployment rate has averaged 9.5% from 1983 to 2010, based on many factors including especially rigid labor laws that make it costly for companies to hire (payroll taxes can reach almost 50%, so that for an employee making 2000 euros/month, the company is paying about 4000 euros). So while I understand the worries of students who want to secure a job after their studies, I certainly do not think raising the retirement age will take away their jobs. How many 20 year-olds take jobs that 60 year-olds take, anyway?

What France needs is to raise the retirement age, and 62 is a reasonable level to start with (it will go higher after), and it needs to encourage private industry, venture capital, entrepreneurship and reduce costs for companies to give them incentives to hire. There is a traditionally anti-business sentiment in France, akin to the anti-government feelings in the US. But I think in the past couple years our countries have started to bridge that gap slowly – but there remains undeniable cultural disparity.

A couple of interesting polls give insight into the situation. The first one asks “Do you think the strikes and protests are beginning to lose steam?”, and over 58% said yes, but this was conducted by the Figaro, which is center-right. The second one, still by Figaro, asks if the government should use force to gain access to fuel depots that are blocked. The result? An overwhelming 80% said yes. Indeed, Sarkozy said that he would do this, because the economy is being hit by these strikes

Figaro TV news is at the bottom of this posting to give you an inside look at the violence between youth and police. I’ll update this week as we go along. Good luck!

This just in: French strikes planned for Oct. 19, fuel supply to Paris airports cut

October 15th, 2010 1 comment

Wow, French unions are calling for yet another “day of action”, this time for Tuesday Oct. 19. This will combine public transport strikes and high school closings, as well as a continuation of the blockade of oil refineries that is threatening to cut supply in the country.

The French government is being urged by oil representatives to open up the emergency supply of provisions, as they state there are only 10 days worth of stock left. All of 12 French refineries have been either shut down or blockaded by protesting workers, leading to this situation, but riot police have successfully intervened and reopened 4 refineries. However, the fuel supply to the 2 main airports in Paris, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, has been cut. Consequently, CDG could run out of fuel by next week, whereas estimates on stock for Orly are for another 17 days. See article below for more information. You can also look at the Paris airports website for information. Check with your airline companies too.

As BBC notes in this insightful report, President Nicolas Sarkozy is facing record low approval ratings, but he has insisted that his government will not cede in the midst of opposition to pension reform. Meanwhile Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry and others from the left are calling for renegotiations, but the left remains split between those who would be willing to raise the age to 62 amid concessions and those who do not want to negotiate. The President of UMP (Sarkozy’s center-right party) in the Sénat, Gérard Longuet, has called out the Socialists as hyocrites for suggesting retirement age 60 because people would not be able to get full pension.

The UMP’s youth and student arm is trying to reach out to high schoolers in the midst of strikes and protests to inform them about the retirement reform; you will see many students protesting, but dig deeper and often they are not that informed.

Stay tuned. I will update my blog on Oct. 18 with pertinent transport info for the country. Meanwhile, watch out for disgruntled strikes tomorrow (Saturday Oct 16) as protests are planned for around the country as well that day. Hang in there!

Fuel supplies to Paris’ main airports through a major pipeline have been cut off amid strikes over pension reforms.

“The company that operates the pipeline told French media that the capital’s main airport, Charles de Gaulle, could run out of fuel as early as next week. There are fears of fuel shortages as all of France’s 12 oil refineries have been hit by strikes, and many oil depots remain blockaded.

Unions are opposed to government plans to raise the retirement age. Trapil, the firm that operates the pipeline to Paris’ airports, said supplies had been cut off on Friday.

A company spokesman told AFP news agency: “Orly airport has stocks for 17 days, and Roissy [Charles de Gaulle] for at least the weekend.”

In recent days government officials have tried to play down fears of petrol shortages, insisting that France has enough to see out the industrial action.However, panic buying has broken out in some areas, putting supplies under greater strain.

Earlier in Friday, riot police reopened oil deports that had been blockaded in Fos-sur-Mer in the south; Cournon in central France; and Lespinasse and Bassens in the south-west, AFP reported. French Junior Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau told reporters: “We cannot afford petrol shortages. One must bear in mind those of us who need transport.”

However, new blockades were set up at least five other fuel depots.

On Thursday, France’s petrol distributors urged the government to release emergency fuel stocks, warning that only 10 days’ fuel was left. Demand at petrol pumps has surged by 50% in the past two days.

In the port of Marseille, more than 70 ships carrying crude for refining are stranded as dockers continue their rolling strike.The protests erupted after centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy announced plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and from 65 to 67 for a full state pension.

More than a million people took to the streets in the latest national protest on Tuesday. France’s main unions have since stepped up their action, calling for the fifth in a series of strikes and street protests on 19 October. Students, who joined Tuesday’s demonstrations in large numbers, held further protests on Friday. More than 300 secondary schools across France – about one in 15 – remain affected by strikes and blockades.

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