France pension reform bill set for final vote

France’s National Assembly is set to take a final vote on a controversial pension reform bill, with President Nicolas Sarkozy hoping it will bring an end to a series of damaging strikes.The bill is almost certain to pass but may still face a number of challenges before the president signs it into law.Unions still plan nationwide strikes and rallies on Thursday but there are signs the action is losing steam.Employees at five of the 12 oil refineries are now back at work.The BBC’s Christian Fraser in Paris says that as the protests have stalled, the march of the parliamentary process has gathered an unstoppable pace.The upper house of parliament, the Senate, approved the final version of the pensions bill by 177 votes to 151, on Tuesday, with the lower house expected to follow suit.There will still be a number of formal procedures to be finished before the bill is signed into law by the president. But that is expected to be completed by the second week in November.Mr Sarkozy will hope the vote extinguishes any further appetite for confrontation, our correspondent says.Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said the situation had reached a “turning point”.”What’s very important is taking responsibility – it’s realising that the economy needs to function,” she said.The main plank of the reforms is raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The cost of the strike action has been punishing not only to the French economy but also to the president’s standing. Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval ratings have slipped below 30% for the first time.Unions are pressing ahead with Thursday’s protests. Some unions admit it has been difficult to retain the strength of the opposition but say the action will take “different forms”.Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, said: “It’s not over. The subjects it has raised are not closed, whatever happens in the coming days.”However, one worker at the Grandpuits refinery, Rodolphe Avicer, told Agence France-Presse news agency: “It’s two weeks now we’ve been on strike. At first we were here all the time, arriving at 4am and going home at midnight. After two weeks it wears you out.”

The CGT controls the country’s key oil refineries and the terminals at Fos Lavera in Marseille and Le Havre remain closed.Our correspondent says the last skirmishes of this battle will still be dangerous both to the government and the economy.There are still fuel shortages and crude oil is stuck on ships that are unable to unload for processing.Students tried to rekindle the protests on Tuesday but only about 1,000 attended the main demonstration outside the Senate in the capital.If the protest movement continues, another day of strikes is planned for 6 November – Bbc