War of figures as France protests pension reform
Mass street protests and strikes across France Thursday turned into a battle of figures as both the government and unions said they were winning the bitter war over raising the retirement age to 62.
Many schools closed, flights were cancelled, and only half of inter-city and Paris metro trains ran as hundreds of thousands marched for the second time in a month against the centrepiece of President Nicolas Sarkozy's reforms.
Scuffles broke out in Paris after the main march, when police tear-gassed a few dozen anarchist youths throwing stones and bottles, but the protests were by and large good humoured, determined and well marshalled.
But with victory judged on whether more or fewer people took part compared to a protest two weeks ago that drew more than a million, the government and unions each came up with wildly different rival turn-out figures.
The interior ministry said just under a million took to the streets, fewer than at the September 7 march, while the CFDT union said 2.9 million turned out, more than the 2.5 million it claimed for the earlier protest.
Sarkozy's office insisted there was a noticeable drop in the number of workers on strike, 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 trend is that today there was a reduction in the numbers both of strikers and demonstrators," government spokesman Luc Chatel declared.
Labour leaders made entirely the opposite claim.
Francois Chereque, head of the large CFDT union, countered that Thursday's high turnout showed that the labour movement had "won its gamble" in the battle for hearts and minds to keep the right to retire at the age of 60.
"By our numbers, we have shown that the game isn't over," declared Annick Coupe, leader of the minority Solidaires union, which for its part estimated that three million demonstrators had taken to the street.
Sarkozy's 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.
Nevertheless, as protesters on the noisy march snaked their way through the streets of Paris to the sounds of blasting reggae music they were sure they could still block it.
"We really hope we can change something," said a woman who gave her name as Natacha and who works in a creche. "My profession is very, very difficult and so we are demanding the right to retire at 60."
Benoit Vanhaecke, a fireman, said the solution was to "tax the bosses, the big multinational companies a little more and not at every turn hit the middle classes and the workers".
Unions and opposition politicians say the pension 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 new law would particularly penalise anybody who is unable to work the full 40 or 41 years required to qualify for a full pension -- a population which includes a huge proportion of women.
But the government argues the reform is needed to help cope with an ageing population and says it could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030 at a time when France's public deficit is well above the eurozone target.
More than two thirds of the French -- 68 percent -- supported Thursday's day of action, according to a poll published by the communist daily L'Humanite, while only 15 percent were against it.
The strikes hit schools and transport hardest, with only around one train in two running nationally.
Fifty percent of flights at Paris Orly airport were cancelled and 40 percent at the capital's Charles de Gaulle airport, said the civil aviation authority.
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 payments needed is due to increase in stages to 41.5 years, and the minimum retirement age is to go up to 62.
© 2010 AFP