French Labor Minister - AP - Oct 24, 2010
French Labor Minister Eric Woerth at the Senate in Paris, Friday. Photo by AP
Text size

PARIS - It was as if nothing had happened - as if the millions demonstrating in the streets had gone unseen, the barricades unnoticed, and the canceled flights and trains unmissed. As if it had all been for naught, the French Senate quickly pushed through the unpopular pension-reform bill Friday, voting 177 to 153 to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

"It's a victory for a certain form of political courage," declared Labor Minister Eric Woerth after the vote. "France had to engage in reforms and we did it responsibly. It allows us to save our retirement system. We live longer; it's normal to work a bit longer."

The bill now needs a joint parliamentary commission to rubber-stamp changes from the original text, and approval from the Constitutional Council. Both are expected later this week.

But the unions and others who have raged alongside them refuse to see this as the end of their fight; they have called for fresh strikes on Thursday and November 6.

"We want these days of strikes and demonstrations to be huge," Nadine Prigent of the CGT union told news channel France 24. "What we are saying to workers is that we can still stop these reforms."

They are not being completely illogical, because in France there is a precedent of protests overturning reforms even after they have been passed into law.

In 2006, for example, millions of students took to the streets to protest president Jacques Chirac's labor reforms, which would have made it easier to fire young workers. The demonstrators did not let up pressure, even after that bill became law. In the end, they forced the government to backpedal and agree not to apply the legislation.

Speaking in the Senate after the vote on Friday, opposition spokesman Jean-Pierre Bel warned the government: "You haven't finished with pensions. You have ignored what the French people have expressed, you have listened to none of our proposals. Your reform is unfair."

While as many as 63 percent of French surveyed in recent days said they opposed the government's reform plans, a survey yesterday by right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro said 56 percent wanted the strikes and protests to end once parliament voted the bill into law. Forty-three percent said they wanted the protests to continue.

Even if the protests ended now, the government admitted that with between 20 and 21 percent of gas stations across France empty due to the blockades and strikes, it would take "several days" to get things back to normal.