French government defends contested pension reform

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France's government on Friday insisted it would push on with its sensitive pension reforms after hundreds of thousands of protestors marched to defend their right to retire at 60.

"No protest will solve the demographic problem posed by the pensions issue," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told a news conference.

A mass strike against the plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018 disrupted transport and shut schools on Thursday. Unions said 1.9 million protestors took to the streets while police put turnout at 800,000.

"The government understands the worries, it is listening to the French people's views," Fillon said, but added: "Whatever the opposition, however strong, we have a duty to ensure that French people's pensions are funded."

Like many other European countries, France is facing a funding shortfall in its pensions plan due to a growing older population. Costly stimulus measures taken during the financial crisis have also pushed up its deficit.

The reform is aimed at helping the government meet its announced deficit target of 3-percent of GDP in 2013.

Unions declared Thursday's protests a success and threatened even bigger ones in September, when the retirement bill is due to be debated in parliament.

"If the government and the president act as if nothing is happening... then do not be surprised if the conflict gathers intensity after the summer," said Bernard Thibault, head of France's biggest union the CGT, on LCI television.

"There will be even more of us after the summer holidays," said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT union, one of six that called Thursday's strike.

"The government must redraft this reform," he said on France Info radio.

The government has said there is still room for negotiation on allowances for people with particularly tough jobs, and Fillon on Friday also promised that those who start work before the age of 18 may still retire at 60.

A poll by Ifop published this week by the pro-government newspaper Le Figaro said 58 percent of French people found the planned reform acceptable, though a survey by pollster CSA said 68 percent sympathised with the protests.

© 2010 AFP

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