French unions call fresh protests against retirement at 62
French labour unions on Wednesday called for a second wave of strikes this month to challenge plans to raise the retirement age to 62, one day after over a million people took to the street in protest.
Six major unions issued a joint statement saying they were not satisfied by the minor modifications offered by President Nicolas Sarkozy to his plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 by 2018.
They called on French workers to make September 23 "a major day of strikes and demonstrations" to fight the reform, a cornerstone of Sarkozy's agenda as he eyes the next presidential election in 2012.
The statement came after Sarkozy defiantly insisted that "there is no question of backtracking" on hiking the retirement age. But the right-wing president did offer some sweeteners.
He said in his first reaction to Tuesday's mass protests that some exceptions would be allowed for those who start work younger than 18 and for certain physically demanding jobs.
Sarkozy says the pensions system must be reformed as part of efforts to rein in France's huge budget deficit.
"I am attentive to the concerns that have been expressed," Sarkozy said in a statement Tuesday that however added that "there is no question of letting anyone distort the reform."
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 must start again from scratch with this reform, which is both unjust and ineffective," the leader of the Socialists, Martine Aubry, told France 2 television.
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.
Tuesday's 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