French unions up ante with latest pension protest
French unions sought Saturday to bring millions onto the streets, shunning strikes for mass protests in their latest salvo against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age.
Rallies were held in cities including Saint-Etienne, Clermont-Ferrand, Calais and Aix-en-Provence ahead of the main demonstration in Paris, expected in the afternoon.
The interior ministry said that around 380,000 people were demonstrating around midday, less than the 410,000 people the ministry counted at the same moment on the last day of protest, September 23.
"The aim is to get the same level (as previous protests)... The government will have to pay close attention," said Francois Chereque of the biggest CFDT union.
Chereque said he expected between two and three million people to take part in the nationwide protests, the first to be held at the weekend after two days of weekday strike action in September that failed to bow the government.
"Those who cannot demonstrate during the week because they're working in small businesses and can't afford to stop will be on the street," Chereque said.
The last day of action ended in an argument over how many people took part: police said numbers were down from the previous September 7 protest at around one million, unions said they were up at three million.
Public support for the protests is growing, according to an opinion poll published in L'Humanite daily on Saturday which said that 71 percent of French supported or sympathised with the action, while 12 percent were opposed.
After the last protests, Prime Minister Francois insisted that his government would push on with the controversial plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
"Governing means listening to everyone. Governing means respecting everyone. But governing France also sometimes means being able to say 'no'," Fillon said.
Faced with the possibility of swelling demonstrations, Secretary of State for Public Affairs Georges Tron said that a "major turnout" could be expected.
"It would make sense for there to be a larger turnout, given that people who do not work will decide to take part," he told RTL radio.
Tron suggested some tweaks could be made to the retirement bill, notably to make the retirement rules for women more lax, but that the core of the law had to remain unchanged in order to save the pension system.
Unions have vowed to stage another day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday, October 12.
The pension reform bill has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and will be examined from October 5 by the upper house, where it is expected to pass easily.
Strike action against port labour reform as well as in solidarity with the anti-reform protests closed France's main commercial ports Friday, hitting freight traffic.
Some cruise ships in the Mediterranean were also to change their routes and two terminals were also affected, forcing rationing of diesel in Corsica.
"Most commercial ports are closed", the government's transport ministry told AFP.
The strike action would be renewed every weekend until "a timetable for negotiations has been fixed," said the secretary general of the CGT union's ports and docks branch, Tony Hautbois.
© 2010 AFP