France faces more mass protests against retirement at 62
French unions plan another day of mass street protests and strikes Thursday to fight Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to hike the retirement age to 62, the centrepiece of the right-wing president's reforms.
Sarkozy, already under attack from the European Union for deporting Roma and from the media over a lingering financial scandal, says he will press on regardless with his pension plans.
The president has vowed his pension bill will be pushed through and it remains central to both his reform programme and his personal political survival strategy, less than two years before he seeks re-election.
More than a million French workers took to the streets two weeks ago to challenge the reforms and now unions are hoping for an even bigger day of demonstrations this week to preserve the right to retire at the age of 60.
"The priority is to widen mobilisation," said Bernhard Thibault, the head of the CGT union.
The reform bill has already been passed by France's lower house of parliament and now has to be examined by the upper house, which is expected to pass it easily.
French men and women can under current rules retire at 60 if they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years, although they are not entitled to a full pension until they are 65.
If the reform bill is finally adopted, the retirement age will go up to 62 by 2018, and the pension age to 67, and workers will have to pay social security contributions for an extra year to get a full pension.
Unions and opposition politicians say the plan puts an unfair burden on workers. They have made counter proposals including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.
The government argues that the reform could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030 at a time when France's public deficit -- at around eight percent of GDP -- is well above the eurozone target of three percent.
Sarkozy defiantly said after the street protests earlier this month that "there is no question of backtracking" on hiking the retirement age.
But he did offer some sweeteners, promising exceptions for those who start work younger than 18 and for certain physically demanding jobs.
A survey carried out for the CGT union and published Tuesday in the communist newspaper L'Humanite said that 70 percent of French were opposed to raising the retirement age.
That was more bad news for a president fighting battles on several fronts.
Sarkozy, whose poll ratings are at rock-bottom, got into an ugly row last week at an EU summit in Brussels over his orders to French police to dismantle Gypsy camps and expel foreign-born travellers.
Sarkozy clashed privately with European Commission chairman Manuel Barroso and publicly with Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, over the charge that the French policy was a racist throwback to World War II Nazi tactics.
And he has been under intense media scrutiny for months over a complex affair surrounding France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who has been linked to alleged illegal funding of Sarkozy's campaign.
The labour minister promoting pension reform, Eric Woerth, is a former ruling party treasurer implicated in several investigations surrounding Bettencourt's fortune.
© 2010 AFP