French government defends pensions overhaul

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The French government on Wednesday defended plans to raise the retirement age from the current 60 years as part of efforts to tackle its gaping welfare deficit.

"It is a logical option for the government. We are going to increase the legal age (of retirement)," Employment Minister Eric Woerth said, without giving a specific new figure.

Gripped by the sovereign debt crisis, many of France's European neighbours have announced massive spending cuts to curb mounting public deficits and restore stability to the battered eurozone currency bloc.

Woerth told LCI television that no decision on the new age limit had yet been taken, but said: "As one lives longer, it is only logical that your working life should also be longer."

France's main unions have called for a national strike on Thursday to protest the pension overhaul before the government approves legislation on the changes in July.

The reduction of the minimum age for workers to receive a full state pension from 65 to 60 was in 1984 one of the key reforms of Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and remains cherished by the left.

The move to change the pension system in France has run into strong opposition and President Nicolas Sarkozy added fuel to the fire on Tuesday by reportedly criticising the current work and pensions system.

Sarkozy told members of his UMP party that France would "have far fewer problems" if Mitterrand had not lowered the retirement age and Socialists had not introduced the 35-hour working week, a UMP lawmaker told AFP.

These comments drew an angry reaction from Sarkozy's left-wing opponents on Wednesday.

Socialist party leader Martine Aubry, who was one of the architects of the 35-hour week, branded Sarkozy's comments "not worthy of a president" and said that in 2008 he had denied intending to raise the retirement age.

She said the planned reform was "not only unfair but ineffective."

Sarkozy last week confirmed that he planned to freeze all public spending for three years and even said France's constitution should be altered to compel new governments to sign up to a timetable to balance their budgets.

France currently runs a public deficit of eight percent of annual output, which is lower than that of some more troubled eurozone countries but contributes to anxiety about the stability of the single currency bloc.

UMP lawmakers said Sarkozy was bracing for massive protests over retirement reform. One of them told AFP the president expected "there could be three million people in the street" to demonstrate against it.

Neighbouring Germany is raising its minimum age for a full state pension to 67 by the year 2029 and Berlin and many other European countries have begun large-scale budget cuts.

© 2010 AFP

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