Protests over French pension reform continue

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The French Senate worked overtime this week. After 140 hours of debate it finally approved a bill to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62. The reform's expected to be approved by both houses of parliament next week. And President Nicolas Sarkozy will almost certainly sign it. Sarkozy says the measure is designed to save the state pension system. Unions and students say the reform is unfair, and they've been protesting. Oil refineries have been blocked this week, causing fuel shortages across the country. Sarkozy, whose popularity is now at an all-time low, is hoping the retirement law's passage will put an end to weeks of stand-off. The World's Gerry Hadden has the story.

GERRY HADDEN: As late as today, workers outside Paris were blocking a major oil refinery, pressuring the government by choking off fuel supplies. But the police moved in, and after a scuffle cleared the workers out. Union leader Charles Foulard, condemned what he called police repression and blamed it on President Sarkozy.


HADDEN: For weeks now, he said, we've had the unions mobilized, along with citizens, and all we're asking for is a national dialogue on retirement. The President says France can no longer afford to give generous benefits to people to retire at 60, and that pushing retirement back by two years is a must if France is to get its finances in order. Workers say they shouldn't have to pay for an economic crisis sparked by bankers and investors. The refinery actions are the latest in protests that started in June and have grown in size and frequency since. Students have been marching in several French cities, including Leon, where they clashed with police yesterday. The protests have galvanized the French left. And so have polls suggesting that Sarkozy's austerity measures have torpedoed his popularity.


HADDEN: That's Martin Aubry, the head of France's Socialist Party, out in the streets, offering to help out in negotiating the retirement reform. But so far Sarkozy is not backing down. In a speech yesterday he focused on ongoing street violence in some cities, saying he would not be intimidated.


HADDEN: It's a scandal, he says. The culprits will be stopped, found and punished. We won't show any weakness. The French government hopes the retirement reform law's passage will take the wind out of protestor's sails. But quelling the dissent might not be so easy. Today France's largest student union called for further national action for next Tuesday. For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden.