Sarkozy squares up to pensions protestors
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday prepared his response to a national day of protest that saw more than a million workers march in the streets against his plan to raise the retirement age.
Sarkozy says he is open to tweaking his proposed legislation, currently before parliament, but has vowed to stand firm on the bill's key element -- the raising of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, his biggest reform priority as he eyes re-election in 2012.
As he prepared for a cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon at which he was due to give a response to Tuesday's protests, labour unions were also planning to meet to decide their next move.
Unions have vowed further action if he does not bend and the political opposition raised the pressure on him on Wednesday.
"The government must start again from scratch with this reform, which is both unjust and ineffective," the leader of the main opposition Socialists, Martine Aubry, told France 2 television.
She added that "the president of the republic must listen" to the protestors, whose numbers were estimated at 1.12 million nationwide by the interior ministry and at more than 2.5 million by labour leaders.
This topped a similar protest on June 24, when police said 800,000 marched and the unions two million.
As the protests rumbled on Tuesday, the bill was presented to a stormy session in parliament, greeted with angry exchanges between the opposition and Sarkozy's right-wing support.
Aubry on Wednesday called on them to "halt the parliamentary debate" while counter-proposals by unions and the opposition are heard.
Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT union, told television station TF1 on Tuesday that the demonstration would force the government to rethink.
"Millimetre by millimetre, things are moving," he said.
Some critics of the reform however were pessimistic about the chances of forcing Sarkozy to back down. The leader of the FO union Jean-Claude Mailly told France Info radio on Wednesday he had "not many illusions."
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.
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 2012 presidential election.
© 2010 AFP