Paris pensions protestors scorn government scandals

7th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

"No money left for pensions -- or so they say," read the placard, as drums and bagpipes blared through the Paris streets Tuesday and smoke from scorched kebabs and flares fanned over the crowd of tens of thousands.

The biggest face on the sign was not France's unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy, nor Eric Woerth, the minister presenting pensions reform to parliament -- but Liliane Bettencourt, the society heiress at the heart of a government scandal.

The huge march was called to protest Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 -- but for many it was a chance to vent anger at his entire government, mired in scandal and accused of victimising immigrants.

Much of the scorn targeted Woerth, who has been all but brought down by the Bettencourt affair.

"Mr Woerth, I'm a pretty undesirable guy: will you give me the Legion of Honour?" read one banner, referring to allegations that Woerth used his influence to secure a state award for a man who employed his wife.

The man holding the sign, 69-year-old retired actor Jean-Pierre Moreux, described much of the political class as "corrupt".

"They've taken advantage of the economic crisis to increase pressure on people," he added. "They're breaking up the social model. Today it's pensions -- tomorrow it'll be health."

Several investigations are under way into Bettencourt's affairs, including allegations that Woerth handled illegal funding to Sarkozy's UMP party. Woerth has also been hit by allegations of conflicts of interest, although he denies all wrongdoing.

The scandal has rumbled on all summer, complicating Sarkozy and Woerth's bill to raise the retirement age by 2018 -- the centrepiece of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he eyes re-election in 2012.

Sarkozy also drew strong criticism over the summer for rounding up and deporting Roma minorities from illegal camps.

"Pensions are a pretext for protesting against the Sarkozy system," said one protestor at Tuesday's march, Adji Ahoudian, a Socialist Party activist.

"On one hand there is the stigmatisation of minorities by a government that isn't managing to solve security problems, and on the other hand a system that seems to be for the rich and powerful, with no regard for the little people."

At 62, the minimum retirement age would still be well below that of many rich countries, but French workers also pay high social charges on their salaries and long contributions for a full state pension.

"We're going to have old people living in the street," said Michel Prouvier, who at 54 is preparing to retire in two years -- a year later than planned under his special regime as a mechanic for the Parisian public transport network RATP.

"We are enormously attached to our pensions system," said Ophelie Guin, 25, a researcher. "If they raise the retirement age, we will lose all its social benefits," she added, as the deafening parade swept by.

"Slave-driving? No, no, no! Working more? No, no no!" the loud-hailers bellowed. "Fair reforms? Yes, yes, yes!"

© 2010 AFP

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