Sarkozy pensions plan faces angry French street

5th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy faces protests this week against pension reform plans as he limps into the last two years of his first term weakened by scandal and disastrous opinion poll ratings.

French unions have called a national day of strikes and rallies for Tuesday, when Sarkozy's embattled labour minister Eric Woerth is due to present a draft pension reform law to parliament.

The bill would increase France's minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, which would still leave it low by international standards but would reverse a cherished and emblematic Socialist reform.

French voters do not appear to oppose the reform en masse. A poll by the Ifop institute published on Sunday found that a narrow 53 percent majority found it at least "acceptable".

But support is ebbing away -- the same survey found that 58 percent backed raising the retirement age in June -- and 70 percent of respondents backed the labour unions' day of action against the government.

And on the same day, another poll found Sarkozy's personal approval rating has slipped to only 32 percent, its lowest ever level since he took office in 2007 and a severe blow to his 2012 re-election hopes.

"This autumn is a key moment, because it is now that everything falls into place for 2012," said political scientist Pascal Perrineau.

Sarkozy hopes to make pensions reform the key measure of the final two years of his first mandate and the start of his electoral fight back, but it comes after a politically disastrous summer.

Woerth, the minister tasked with pushing the bill through parliament, has been weakened by a series of allegations surrounding his links to France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

The president has stood by him publicly, and the minister denies any wrongdoing or conflict of interest in his role as ruling party fundraiser, but the scandal rumbles on and several judicial probes are underway.

The French leader has also courted international outrage and incensed the French left and human rights groups with a crackdown on Roma immigrants and threats to strip foreign-born criminals of French citizenship.

Here again, voters tell pollsters they approve of the crackdown, but again this has failed to translate into a fillip for Sarkozy's own ratings.

Sensing weakness, the unions are determined the day of strikes and street rallies will be seen as a massive rejection of pension reform and predict disruption to transport, government, industry, banks and postal services.

More than 190 marches are planned, and unions hope for a bigger turnout than for a similar protest on June 24, when between 800,000 and two million people marched, according to police and organisers' estimates.

"Depending on how many come out on Tuesday, the government will advance or not advance this reform," said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT, part of a broad coalition of France's main labour organisations backing the strike.

"The only chance today, since dialogue will not allow us to do it, to change the reform, to make it more fair, is to be numerous in the street on Tuesday. It's a crucial moment," he warned.

But there is little sign Sarkozy is ready to back down, even if his chief of staff Claude Gueant appeared on Europe 1 radio Sunday to say the government would propose amendments to the law this week.

Gueant said changes could be made to the rules to take into account the circumstances of those in difficult jobs, but that "the fundamentals of the reform can't change ... because this reform is necessary."

France is running a huge public deficit and government thinks raising the retirement age could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030.

A minimum retirement age of 60 is well under the average of 64 in the OECD group of wealthy industrialised democracies, despite France having one of the world's longest life expectancies.

This translates to French men spending on average 24 years in retirement and French women 28, compared to an OECD average of 18 and 23, according to a report last year by the organisation.

© 2010 AFP

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