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Controversial French reform gets final Senate approval

By the CNN Wire Staff

  • NEW: Lower house of parliament is expected to vote Wednesday
  • The expected increase in France's GDP is 1.6 percent for 2010
  • After a fuel crisis, the situation in France is becoming more normal
  • Protesters are angry about raising the retirement age to 62 and other measures
  • Finance minister: Strikes have cost the country $280 million to $560 million a day

Paris, France (CNN) -- The French Senate gave its final approval to a controversial pension reform bill Tuesday, passing it 177-151 despite nationwide protests that brought millions of demonstrators onto the streets.

The lower house of parliament is due to vote on it Wednesday, the last legislative hurdle before the package becomes law.

It would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, among other measures, which the government said are necessary because the current system is unaffordable.

There were demonstrations Tuesday at four universities around the country, the Ministry of Education said. Most universities are in vacation this week.

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As the final vote looms, the country's finance minister said she doesn't expect ongoing strikes to cause a significant blow to France's growth forecast for this year.

"There are no winners and no losers in this affair. What is important is to take responsibility, to realize that the economy needs to keep going," Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told French radio station Radio Classique on Tuesday. "I do not deny that we've had several days where there has clearly been an economic impact. I don't think it's enough to change our growth forecast for the entire year."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Finance said France's expected increase in gross domestic product for 2010 is 1.6 percent, a level that has held steady since August.

Strikes in France cost the country 200 million to 400 million euros ($280 million to $560 million) per day, plus "immaterial" and "moral" damages, Lagarde told French broadcaster Europe 1 on Monday.

French workers staged a series of rolling strikes and demonstrations this month and in September against government plans to raise the retirement age. The government said the measures are necessary to save money and shrink the deficit.

Lagarde's estimate covers a period of nearly two weeks, since rolling strikes began on October 12, a Finance Ministry spokesman told CNN, and takes in the fuel crisis, the deterioration of the country's image and the impact on foreign investment.

A fuel crisis caused by the strike has started to ease, the Ministry of the Interior said Tuesday, with five of the country's 12 refineries now operating.

Drivers had been waiting for hours to refill the tanks of their cars in some parts of the country after strikers shut down all 12 refineries and blocked some fuel depots last week.

Lagarde has said the country cannot continue to pay its debts -- to retirees and others -- by borrowing at current levels. The government's announced goal is to cut the deficit from 8 percent to 6 percent of GDP by next year, an ambitious goal.

More than 1 million people have turned out nationwide to protest the proposal.

Six major French unions have called for further nationwide demonstrations on Thursday and November 6, saying that protests so far show the people are ready to dig in for the long haul.

CNN's Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.