French unions launched fresh strikes on Tuesday to protest a rise in the retirement age, threatening open-ended action to force the government to back down, even as the key proposals were voted into law.
In the fourth major action against the government reforms in a month, transport workers, teachers and civil servants stopped work in a bid to halt the plan, a cornerstone of President Nicolas Sarkozy's programme. But as poll ratings for the president hit a low and support for the unions jumped, French senators passed another key measure late Monday, raising the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67.
Officials have warned travellers to expect serious disruption to rail and air traffic, with half the flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at Charles de Gaulle and Paris Beauvais cancelled. Just one in three TGV high-speed trains was expected to run but Eurostar trains between Paris and London were due to operate normally.
Drivers in the Paris metro and local commuter trains also joined the action and teachers, truckers and postal workers were expected strike later Tuesday. Organisers of the action were hoping for a strong turn-out to show that opposition had not waned. Already over the last month, the unions have organised three mass protests including two strikes, which brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets.
But the government has stuck to its policies. "We're not here to do what's easy, we don't always have the people's approval," Labour Minister Eric Woerth told the senators. "It's difficult to tell the French that the they have to work more, up to 67 years, but it has to be done." This time the unions have raised the stakes, with threats to prolong the strikes beyond Tuesday and a call for a further day of demonstrations on Saturday.
But it was unclear how many workers would vote to extend their action beyond a day, with employees in some sectors, such as teachers and truckers, planning only a one-day action. Union leaders have also appealed to school and university students to join them in the streets -- a tactic denounced by Woerth as "totally irresponsible".
A two-week-old strike at oil terminals in Marseille against port reforms has added to the pressure on the government, with fears that fuel shortages could soon reach refineries. A CSA poll released Sunday showed the president's approval rating drop one point to 31 percent, his lowest since 2007.
But the pensions bill is a key plank of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he eyes reelection in 2012 and tries to rein in France's big public deficit.
The pollster's findings were more encouraging for the unions. A survey by pollster CSA for Le Parisien newspaper published Monday said 69 percent of French people still backed Tuesday's strike, with 61 percent in favour of more open-ended industrial action.
And an Ifop poll for France-Soir newspaper showed a sharp rise in support for the unions: 53 percent of those polled trusted the unions -- up 10 points from a similar poll carried out in June.
Some union activists nevertheless fear the protest may be running out of steam and that this is the last chance to make the government back down. The Senate's deliberations are due to last until Friday and the government hopes for the reform to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.