France to push back retirement age
President Nicolas Sarkozy will seek to push back France's retirement age, aides confirmed Tuesday, as workers prepared a day of protest against this main plank of his undeclared austerity programme.
Gripped by the sovereign debt crisis, many of France's European neighbours have announced massive spending cuts in a bid to curb their mounting deficits and restore stability to the battered eurozone currency bloc.
Sarkozy has been more cautious, insisting his announcement of a three-year spending freeze does not amount to an austerity programme, but any attack on France's iconic 60-year retirement age will meet fierce resistance.
The reduction of the minimum age for workers to receive a full state pension from 65 to 60 was in 1984 one of the key reforms of Socialist president Francois Mitterrand's government, and remains cherished by the left.
"This time, it's war," trumpeted the financial daily La Tribune as a series of leaks confirmed what has long been suspected, that Sarkozy intends to make later retirement a key goal of the second half of his first term.
Labour unions and the left-wing opposition are preparing to respond. France will have an opportunity to gauge the strength of their support on Thursday, when they will stage large-scale street rallies across the country.
Previous attempts in recent decades by right-wing governments to reform state finances and cut entitlements have often been derailed by large-scale protests, but Sarkozy's supporters insist pension change is essential.
Neighbouring Germany has already set the tone by raising the minimum age for a full state pension to 67 by the year 2029, and Berlin and many other European countries have begun large-scale budget cuts.
France has thus far been more cautious, putting its faith in a gradual return to growth and a freeze on spending increases.
But Xavier Bertrand, chairman of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, warned readers of the popular daily Le Parisien: "We're going to have to accept working longer ... France is the only country in Europe with such early retirement."
According to a senior official close to the debate inside the government, a decision to increase the minimum retirement age has been taken but ministers are not yet sure whether to push it to 62 years, 63 or more.
A government planning document, sent last week to unions, said that France will have 18 million retirees by 2030, up from 15.5 million today, and the number will rise to 23 million by mid-century.
The minimum number of years that need to be worked before a full pension can be paid may also be increased from 40, and the measure will probably come into effect in 2011, he said.
Gerard Larcher, the leader of the UMP in the French Senate, suggested that 43 years of tax-paying work might be necessary, but his colleague in the lower house, Bernard Accoyer, warned that any change must be "very gradual".
Opposition to the reform looks likely to be led by the labour movement.
Bernard Thibault, leader of France's largest trade union the CGT, declared that the current retirement age had been a victory of socialism and warned the government not to attempt rapid reform.
"At a time of high unemployment ... and when the states and peoples of Europe are being held hostage to international financial speculation ... retirement reform needs better than a last-minute debate," he said.
Nevertheless, the opposition Socialist Party has yet to present a united front against reform, with party grandee and IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn declaring himself not "dogmatically" opposed to change.
© 2010 AFP