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French Senate Passes Controversial Retirement Bill

A demonstrator holds a trade union flag as French riot police officers secure the area at the Bordeaux train station, southwest France, Friday Oct. 22, 2010, during a demonstration against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age to 62.

The French Senate has passed a controversial pension reform bill that has sparked protests and strikes throughout France. Actions by workers and students have crippled transport, shut down high schools and universities and caused gas shortages. Unions are calling for more protests, even as the bill moves towards becoming law.

French police re-taking control of a refinery outside Paris. Workers had blockaded the compound to protest a retirement reform law. For two weeks, union members across France have targeted refineries and fuel depots, causing widespread gas shortages. The government has ordered police to break up the blockades and get fuel moving.

The government intervened in France's Senate too, using an emergency procedure to force an early vote on the reform law. Many senators had wanted to keep debating, in deference to the public outcry.

Polls here show 70 percent of the people do not approve of the bill. It would raise the retirement age by two years to 62, and full retirement to 67. There have been a number of demonstrations and strikes against it since September.

Unions have called for more days of action, next Thursday and the following week. They vowed to continue public disruptions until the government agrees to meet with them and discuss reform.

But some of the protests have turned violent, which could pose a problem for the unions and others who want public support against the reforms to grow.

Pollster Francois Miquet-Marty said "It's clear that the French support this social movement, but do not want radicalization. That is to say, they want a social movement that is peaceful and soothing."

Miquet says polls show just over half the population opposes the decision to block refineries and spark a fuel shortage.

In Paris, government officials met with oil industry officials to discuss how to ease the problems caused by the blockades and striking oil workers. Government officials say little by little things are getting better.

Environement Minister Jean Louis Borloo said "I notice the progressive improvement of the situation and our job is to make sure we provide fuel for the whole country."

The government says there will not be any gas rationing.

However, ships carrying oil are unable to dock in Marseilles because strikers are blocking the port. Garbage collectors are on strike too. It is the beginning of a long school vacation here, that could reduce the pool of demonstrators for actions scheduled next week.

Much will depend on what frustrates the French more - the government's reforms, or the inconvenience caused by weeks of striking.