Sarkozy tweaks key pension reform, but unions stand firm
President Nicolas Sarkozy made a concession on his landmark pension reform on Thursday, days ahead of a fresh round of mass protests which threaten to lock down France, but unions said it was not enough.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth told the Senate the plan to raise retirement from 60 to 62, which has already brought millions of protestors onto the streets, would be tweaked for some parents but its core would be untouched.
The left-wing opposition derided the move, set to cost a relatively minor 3.4 billion euros (4.7 billion dollars), as "theatre" while key unions, which have not ruled out a general strike, said the bill was unacceptable.
Amid a stormy debate, Socialist senators said the changes, which will benefit mothers of three or more children and parents of handicapped children, merely reinstated existing advantages that had been due to be axed.
"You're turning the debate into theatre," said the Socialists' Senate leader Jean-Pierre Bel.
The Communist Party said that the government "doesn't seem to realise the rising anger in the country that means that seven out of 10 French people reject the reform as deeply unfair."
The head of the main CGT union, Bernard Thibault, said that the changes "would not modify our criticism" of a reform that remains "very bad" while the CFDT union said the reform remains "highly unsatisfactory."
The amendments came the day after unions called for open-ended strikes from Tuesday to protest the overall reform.
Workers at state rail company SNCF and the Paris public transport system as well as the gas and electricity sectors are all to go on strike, the fourth day of action in just over a month.
Demonstrators took to the streets during two days of protest in September and a third on October 2.
Unions at national carrier Air France called Thursday for their members to join the strike.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon has repeatedly vowed his government will push on with the reform, a key plank of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he eyes reelection in 2012.
A strike blocking two French Mediterranean oil terminals entered its 11th day on Thursday, with the movement causing fuel shortages on Corsica.
That action is mainly in protest at port privatisation plans but dockers' unions are also criticising the pensions reform.
And a 24-hour strike by dock workers handling goods and passengers at Marseille ended Thursday, with the workers to decide whether they would join the October 12 nationwide strike action.
Critics say the plan to raise the standard retirement age to help rein in France's public deficit places an unfair burden on workers.
However, the head of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, said on Thursday that a call for a general strike was not yet on the cards.
"For me (calling for a general strike) is a completely abstract, abstruse slogan... that doesn't correspond with the practice through which we slowly escalate the battle of wills," Thibault told RTL radio.
Not calling for a general strike "hasn't stopped tens of millions of people from already taking part, one way or another, since May, in protests against the government," he said.
© 2010 AFP