The French Senate has delayed a vote to reform the pension system, with parliament now expected to debate the issue until next week. As protests against the plans continue, France faces the possibility of fuel shortages.
Protests have filled the streets since Tuesday
France's Senate has delayed a planned vote on a bill that would introduce pension reforms and raise the retirement age, a ruling party spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The legislation, which would raise the early retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018 and lift the age of eligibility for a full pension from 65 to 67, has set off nationwide strikes and protests, disrupting transport, schools and services.
The vote, which had been expected to be held on Friday or Saturday, has been pushed back until October 20, according to a lawmaker speaking to the Agence France-Presse news agency. The spokeswoman for the ruling conservative UMP party said parliament's upper house needed more time to debate around 820 proposed amendments filed by the Socialist opposition.
With people living longer and France's public deficit at record levels, President Nicolas Sarkozy says the bill is needed to help ease the cash crunch in the pension system. But unions and the opposition accuse Sarkozy of making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis.
Labor unions have been leading an open-ended strike against the bill since Tuesday, when between 1.2 and 3.5 million people took to the streets of Paris and other cities, according to police and trade union estimates.
Sarkozy has refused to back down
The strikes eased somewhat on Wednesday, as flights from Paris' main airports returned to normal and international rail service to London, Belgium and the Netherlands resumed.
But as strikes entered a third day, France's national rail authority SNCF said only about four in 10 scheduled high-speed TGV trains were operating and about one in two regional trains.
Unions have called for more protests on Saturday, and Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT union, said they were "looking for new ways to pressure the government."
Sarkozy has refused to back down over his plan to raise the retirement age, saying he would "go no farther" in terms of concessions.
Meanwhile, France could be facing fuel shortages as soon as Thursday after the strikes shut down 70 percent of the its oil refining capacity. Eight of France's 12 refineries were in the process of shutting down operations, while another three have seen their output severely disrupted by strike action.
A spokesman for French oil giant Total confirmed the shutdowns, but Jean-Louis Schilansky, the chairman of the oil industry association, said France's fuel depots had enough in stock to keep the nation's filling stations running for the moment.
However, he warned that "if the situation continues as it is now, we'll have to take a serious look at the problem of strategic stocks."
Author: Martin Kuebler (AFP,AP,Reuters)
Editor: Chuck Penfold