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France's dark month

Pension reform prompts nationwide protests. Oil refineries shut down, airport disrupted. Bin Laden threatens to punish France for banning the Muslim veil. Protesters discard Guerlain perfume after racist slur. And was Lady Gaga on strike?

French youth protest

Top news: With nationwide strikes, fuel disruptions and terror threats it has been a hectic month for France.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the generous government-funded pension system has prompted anger throughout the country.

The president’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 has led union workers and students alike to take to the streets of Paris and other French cities.

During the biggest demonstrations, more than a million people gathered nationwide. Public transportation, fuel supplies and air travel were disrupted.

Twelve oil refineries were on strike for about two weeks, causing supply shortages at gas stations throughout the country.

The French Ministry of Finance estimated that every strike day cost France 400 million euros.

But despite the strikes’ cost and a sentiment that pension reform was inevitable, 69 percent of the French  actually supported the workers on strike, according to a BVA opinion poll.

Indeed, many French people were under the impression that there has not been enough debate about and explanation of the reform.

Left-wing groups and unions also suggested the option of a different  pension reform  — financed by financial institutions and large CAC 400-listed companies — instead of asking tax payers to work for two additional years.

But outside the country, the protests prompted mixed reactions  — especially while David Cameron’s decision to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 in Britain did not lead to any demonstration or loud protest.

Compared to their European neighbors, the French are also often seen as reluctant to embrace necessary reforms. They are also sometimes mocked for their workers union folklore — the loud protests, red banners and chants.

But now that the law has been passed, no demonstration, no matter how big, is likely to undo the reform. However the social movement against the reform has not completely faded  — a demonstration is planned for Nov. 6 and a waste management center remains blocked in Paris.

Left-wing politicians and unions have argued that the political consequences of the tumult will be significant for Sarkozy.

The president is expected to run for re-election in 2012. But this reform has brought his approval rate to historically-low levels.

It challenges a cherished French value that there is more to life than work and contradicts one of Sarkozy’s campaign commitments — not to raise the minimum retirement age.

And this could indeed burden the incumbent’s chances to snatch a second presidential term.

Now, as if massive demonstrations and a pension considered hard-to-swallow were not enough to shake up the country, France has also been under heightened terror threats.

In a taped message identified as coming from Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader said that Al Qaeda would punish France for voting a ban on Muslim full-covering veils for women and for France’s military presence in Afghanistan.

In Brussels, Sarkozy answered firmly, declaring that "Obviously, France doesn't let anyone dictate its policies, and certainly not terrorists."

In September, security had already been boosted after terror alerts on the Eiffel Tower and French police intelligence showed an increased terror threat to the country.

Money: The reputation of the famous French perfume company Guerlain has been tarnished recently after a racist slur coming from Jean-Paul Guerlain, who works as a nose for the company.

Guerlain said that in order to create his Samsara fragrance, he “started working like a [racial epithet]. I don’t know if [a racial epithet] ever worked that hard.”

It did not take long for Facebook groups and anti-racism groups to call for a boycott on Guerlain.

People protested in front of a Guerlain boutique in Paris, discarding some of the company’s products.

Protests reached out to the other side of the Atlantic, where civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who is due to address anti-racism activists in Paris this month, voiced his outrage.

"The fact that Jean-Paul Guerlain felt comfortable enough to use the N-word in public, coupled with a recent United Nations report showing that racism is on the rise in France, illustrates the depth of racism not only in France but throughout Europe and around the world," Sharpton said in a statement posted on his National Action Network’s website.

Guerlain later apologized for his comments :  "My words do not reflect in any way my profound thoughts but are due to an inopportune misspeaking which I vividly regret."

Elsewhere: And finally, to make France’s misery more complete in October, French fans were deprived of what could have been a welcome distraction : Lady Gaga concerts in Paris.

So what prevented the singer, who once wore a meat-made dress, from coming to the land of cheese? Well, the strikes.

A statement posted on the singer’s website said that the two concerts planned in Paris for Oct. 22 and 23 were postponed because of a lack of certainty that the tour’s trucks could make it to the venue, apologizing for any inconvenience that caused for fans.

At a time when France was going through one its biggest series of protests and heightened terror threats, one could imagine that Lady Gaga scrapping her French concerts would go unnoticed — well far from it. Several large French publications and daily newspapers covered the story.

The good news is that the concerts have been rescheduled for December.

Hopefully by then fuel supplies will have come back to normal, and Lady Gaga’s trucks, filled with baroque outfits, will make it safe and sound to the capital of chic.