French MPs in heated vote on pension reform
French lawmakers vote Wednesday on President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial pensions overhaul, including raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, against a backdrop of fresh protests.
Labour unions were set to take to the streets of Paris as MPs from the left sought to stall the National Assembly vote on a law seen by many as an attack on a French way of life.
However, their bid to delay the vote by each taking turns to speak for five minutes on the bill appeared to have failed after house speaker Bernard Accoyer interrupted the process and said the session would resume at 1300 GMT, sparking the ire of the left.
"I will not allow the use of small manoeuvres to obstruct our parliament in a paralysing and deprecating way," said Accoyer, from Sarkozy's UMP party, to cries from Socialist MPs of "resign."
The head of the Socialist group Jean-Marc Ayrault said that by stalling, MPs of the left had wanted to "pass on popular demands", 10 days after over a million people took to French streets to protest the reform.
In the wake of the protests Sarkozy offered minor changes to the bill, but major unions have said they were not satisfied and have called for another day of action on September 23.
Sarkozy says that the reform, a cornerstone of his agenda as he eyes the next presidential election in 2012, is essential as part of efforts to rein in France's huge budget deficit.
Unions and political opponents say his 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 says the reform can 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.
At 62, the 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.
But French workers also pay high social charges on their salaries, and on an hour-by-hour basis are among the world's most productive, the OECD says.
Sarkozy has been weakened by a summer of scandal and his personal approval rating -- around 34 percent according to several polls -- is at an all-time low, two years before the presidential election.
This months' anti-reform protests drew 1.12 million people, according to the interior ministry, and more than double that according to unions.
Schools, the national rail network, some public services and domestic air services were severely disrupted, and passengers complained of long delays on commuter train services and metros into Paris.
© 2010 AFP