French Senate approves controversial retirement reform

Bill passes hurdle hours after riot police forced the reopening of a strategic refinery to help halt growing fuel shortages.

France Riots 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
France Riots 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
PARIS— The French Senate, pushed into an early vote, approved on Friday a hotly contested bill raising the retirement age to 62, hours after riot police forced the reopening of a strategic refinery to help halt growing fuel shortages amid nationwide strikes and protests.
In tense balloting after 140 hours of debate, the Senate voted 177-153 for the pension reform. The measure is expected to win final formal approval by both houses of parliament next week.
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President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government, keen to get the measure passed and quell increasingly radicalized protests, cut short the debate and voting process using a special procedure. Critics on the left dubbed the use of Article 44-3 of the Constitution a denial of democracy.
The tough stance by the government extended to strikes as French riot police forced a strategic refinery to reopen Friday, aiming to halt growing fuel shortages that have emptied gas pumps around the country and risked hurting industry.
The refinery at Grandpuits had been a bastion of resistance to President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age to 62. Despite the government's efforts to conquer union resistance, the prime minister said it will take several more days to end gasoline shortages that are taking a toll on France's economy.
The Senate debate lasted three weeks before it was short-circuited. Legislators — mostly opposition Socialists — submitted a staggering 1,237 amendments, but Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and its allies have a majority and dismissed nearly all of them.
The text now goes to a committee of seven senators and lower house lawmakers Monday who will try to reach agreement on differences before returning the bill to both houses for a final vote sometime next week.
Unions oppose a pillar of the reform — raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 — and have staged months of strikes and protests that have boiled over into radical action and scattered clashes.
Sarkozy had ordered regional authorities to intervene and force open depots, accusing the strikers of holding ordinary people and the French economy "hostage."
The Interior Ministry said the operation at the Grandpuits fuel refinery succeeded "without incident," but the CGT union claimed three workers were injured. Emergency workers brought stretchers to the depot, located 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Paris, the closest source of gasoline supplies to the French capital.
Helmeted officers in body armor descended overnight on Grandpuits, confronting workers who shoved back and shouted union slogans as they sought to keep police from opening the gates to the depot, which is run by oil giant Total SA.
"We are outraged, scandalized," said Charles Foulard, a union leader at the Grandpuits depot.
Workers have been camped in front of the site for 10 days, blocking access and contributing to widespread fuel shortages. As of Friday, about 20 percent of France's service stations were still empty, down from 40 percent a few days ago.
Sarkozy says overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all. It's a choice many European governments are facing as populations live longer and government debts soar.