France in uproar over pension reform
Street protests broke out in Paris on Wednesday and chaos erupted in parliament as President Nicolas Sarkozy's government battled to push through an increase in the retirement age.
Opposition lawmakers attempted to filibuster a delay in the passage of a bill to raise the minimum pension age to 62, and uproar ensured when the speaker of the house guillotined the debate and scheduled a vote.
"I will not allow the use of petty manoeuvres to obstruct our parliament in a paralysing and deprecating way," said Bernard Accoyer, a member of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party, as Socialist deputies cried: "Resign!"
Meanwhile, several thousand protesters assembled on the Place de la Concorde, across the Seine from the National Assembly, chanting threats of a nationwide general strike against the draft law.
Last week, trade unions staged a one-day national strike and managed to attract between one and three million demonstrators on to the streets of more than 100 towns and cities around the country to oppose the law.
But the president's supporters insist the reform's key measure -- raising retirement by two years by 2018 -- will save 70 billion euros and start to rein in France's soaring public deficit.
Sarkozy has vowed to push on with the bill, which remains the centrepiece of his reform programme and personal political survival strategy less than two years before he goes before the electorate to seek re-election.
The vote is to go ahead at 3.00 pm (1300 GMT) and the bill is expected to pass. After that it will be examined by France's upper house, the Senate, on September 23, when the unions have called another one-day stoppage.
Opinion polls show that a majority of voters join opposition Socialists and unions in opposing the reform -- even if most judge it inevitable in a France with an ever older population and mounting pensions shortfall.
Without enough votes to block the bill in the Assembly, the Socialists embarked on a delaying tactic, with each of their members planning to speak for five minutes each, forcing the debate to last through the night.
After a sleepless night in the chamber, Accoyer called time on the stunt, shutting down the debate at 10.00 am, amid uproar.
"Everything is coming from the Elysee. It's Mr Sarkozy who is behind all this. Bernard Accoyer has behaved like a faction leader," complained Socialist parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, amid calls for Accoyer to go.
For their part, UMP deputies backed the speaker and accused Socialist party chief Martine Aubry and her supporters of substituting spoiling tactics for debate and failing to present an alternative to the reform.
Trade unions say the bill puts too much of the burden of curtailing the deficit on the backs of workers, and would rather fund the pensions black hole with levies on banks, bankers' bonuses and the super-rich.
Socialist leaders have said that if one of their number wins the 2012 presidential battle against Sarkozy, they will repeal the measure.
Even at 62, France's minimum retirement age would still be well under the average of around 64 in the OECD group of wealthy democracies, despite France having one of the world's longest life expectancies.
Meanwhile, France's public deficit, at around eight percent of GDP, is well above the eurozone target of three percent.
Sarkozy has been weakened by a summer of political scandal and his personal approval rating -- still below 40 percent according to several polls -- remains close to its all-time low.
© 2010 AFP