French strike against retirement at 62
Hundreds of thousands of strikers marched in cities across France on Thursday for the second time this month, protesting against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to hike the retirement age to 62.
Between one and three million French workers rallied two weeks ago to fight the reforms and unions are hoping for an even bigger day of demonstrations and disruption to keep the right to retire at the age of 60.
Sarkozy, already under attack from the European Union for deporting Roma and from the media over a lingering financial scandal, has insisted he will press on with the reform regardless, as he eyes reelection in less than two years.
More than 231 separate demonstrations are to be held nationwide, up from the 213 staged on September 7, an increase which CGT union boss Bernard Thibault said proved there was "a bigger support base throughout the country."
With the day's success or failure being judged on whether more or fewer people take part compared to two weeks ago, the government and unions each came up with their own conflicting figures for turn-out.
Officials said 26 percent of teachers, 24 percent of France Telecom staff, 20 percent of civil servants, 15 percent of local government employees and 12 percent of health workers were on strike, fewer than on September 7.
Sarkozy's office said that there was a noticeable drop in strikers, which it said meant that "either the French feel that all this is behind them or they're more in favour of the reform or both."
The interior ministry said that 410,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets by midday, a figure lower than the estimate of 450,000 protestors its gave at the same time on September 7.
Nevertheless, a greater proportion of flights were cancelled, and the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, said that more coaches had been hired to bring protestors to Paris than two weeks ago.
Trade union confederation UNSA admitted that the number of strikers was down, but that the number of street demonstrations was "the same or higher" than two weeks ago.
More than two thirds of French -- 68 percent -- support the day of action, according to an opinion poll published by the communist daily L'Humanite, while only 15 percent are against it.
However, the pension reform bill has already been passed by France's lower house of parliament and will be debated from October 5 by the upper house, the Senate, where it is expected to pass comfortably.
Walkouts hit schools and transport hardest, with only around one train in two running nationally, although Eurostar services to London and Thalys trains to Brussels were predicted to run as normal.
Several schools announced in advance that they would be closed. Unions said that around half of teachers did not turn up to work, as on the last day of protests, while the education ministry said that only a quarter were on strike.
The rail slowdown started on Wednesday evening with many night trains cancelled and was expected to continue until early Friday.
Fifty percent of flights at Paris Orly airport are to be cancelled and 40 percent at the capital's Charles de Gaulle airport -- more than the 25-percent cancelled on September 7, said the DGAC civil aviation authority.
Around 40 percent of flights at other airports will be cancelled, it said.
Air France said its long-haul flights would be unaffected, although half its short- and medium-haul flights at Paris airports would be cancelled.
French men and women can under current rules retire at 60, but they only get a full pension if they have paid social security contributions for a given period, which for most people now in work is 40.5 years.
Under the new law, the number of years of payroll social security payments needed to get a full pension is due to increase in stages to 41.5 years, and the minimum retirement age is to go up to 62.
Unions and opposition politicians say the plan puts an unfair burden on workers, particularly women, part-timers and the former unemployed who might struggle to hit the 41.5 year requirement.
The government argues 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.
© 2010 AFP