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Europe

French Senate approves controversial pension reform

French senators defied mass strikes, riots and fuel blockades on Friday to pass President Nicolas Sarkozy's fiercely contested bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Unions have called for more strike action.

A queue of cars lined up at a gas station

Queues at gas stations are getting longer

The French Senate has voted through President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular reform of the country's pension system, which would raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the maximum age for a full pension from 65 to 67.

The bill has already been passed by the National Assembly, but still needs to be approved by a parliamentary committee, a process that is likely to be completed next Wednesday.

"The day will come when former opponents will thank the president and the government ... for acting responsibly," Labor Minister Eric Woerth said just before the upper house approved the bill by 177 votes to 153.

Ongoing strike action

A striking worker holds union's flags

Nationwide strikes have left nearly a quarter of petrol stations dry

Earlier on Friday, French authorities forced the end of a blockade of the Grandpuits oil refinery near Paris, as blockades and an 11-day strike at refineries left nearly a quarter of all gas stations dry.

The police moved in on the refinery near dawn after an emergency decree ordered the strikers back to work. Unions said three people were injured in the operation.

After a meeting with oil industry executives, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it would take "several more days" for fuel supplies to return to normal. The head of the body which represents the national petroleum industry said the industry was struggling to import fuel to make up for the lack of supply.

Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told reporters that about one in five gas stations had run out of fuel, down from more than a quarter on Wednesday. The government said it had no plans to start rationing fuel, but that it had ordered oil companies to pool their resources to ensure the country was supplied with gas, particularly for this weekend when national school vacations begin.

On Thursday the country's six main unions called for further nationwide marches to protest the reform and for a seventh and eighth day of protests for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6.

Youths run from police

Youths clashed with police at a protest in Lyon

Sarkozy's popularity at all-time low

Sarkozy, meanwhile, has accused trade union leaders of undermining France's fragile economic recovery and vowed to take tough action against protestors who turn violent.

"By taking the French economy, businesses and daily life hostage, you will destroy jobs," he said. "We can't be the only country in the world where, when there's a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else. That's not possible. That's not democracy."

An opinion poll published by the BVA institute and broadcast by Canal Plus television on Friday found that most French voters support the strikes - 69 percent to 29 percent - but 52 percent oppose the blockage of refineries.

The French government insists that the reform is necessary to close a widening budget gap in national pension funds. Unions and political opponents say it unfairly penalizes workers for the mistakes of the global financial system.

Authors: Andrew Bowen, Nicole Goebel (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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