French government unmoved by pensions protest

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Tens of thousands of French workers held street rallies Thursday to oppose President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the age of retirement, but fell short of matching last year's mass demonstrations.

"The weak turnout shows the government's approach is the correct one," said government spokesman Luc Chatel, declaring that the number of protesters was estimated at half the level of a similar day of protest in March 2009.

Union leaders, while claiming to have met their target of exceeding the number who took part in a similar strike in March this year, admitted their campaign needed to shift up a gear if it is to succeed.

"There will certainly be another stage. We'll decide within the union movement if it should take place at the end of June or start of September, or both," said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT union.

"It's a long distance course, not a sprint like the government's strategy. Everything will increase in stages," said Alain Olive of UNSA.

Police estimated turnout in the union rally in Paris at 22,000 -- down from what they said had been 31,000 in March -- while the largest union the CGT said that 90,000 had marched, up from 60,000.

Crowd estimates in other cities were similarly divergent, but labour leaders insisted that in dozens of rallies nationwide they had surpassed the March total, which they had put at 800,000 and police at 350,000.

The size of the demonstrations was clearly smaller than those in the first half of 2009, when the CGT claimed to have brought out more than 2.5 million supporters to denounce Sarkozy's handling of the financial crisis.

Chatel said the numbers were also much smaller than those which greeted the last attempt to reform pensions, and said the government would stay on course.

"The government is not indulging in triumphalism but this mobilisation shows the validity of its method, which is one of listening, of dialogue and of determination to put in place fair and balanced reform," he said.

Public transport was only slightly disrupted, with three quarters of regional trains and all high-speed TGV services running as normal.

If the unions are widely seen to have failed to attract enough support, it will be viewed as a victory for the government, despite polls showing growing opposition to Sarkozy's plan, which ministers only confirmed this week.

In common with much of Europe, France is grappling with a huge public deficit, and the government argues that reforming pension rules and delaying the minimum retirement age will help control mounting debt.

Many of France's neighbours have announced harsh spending cuts but Sarkozy, who has record low poll ratings and faces a re-election fight in two years, has been cautious, refusing to speak of an austerity programme.

Nevertheless, he plans to abolish retirement at 60, a cherished symbol for the French left of its victories under late president Francois Mitterrand.

French retirees receive 85 percent of their pension payments from state schemes, compared to an average of 61 percent among member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Although 60 is the theoretical minimum age for retirement on a full state pension, various special schemes exist in the public sector for those with jobs perceived as tough or those who started in work in their teens.

On average French men retire at 58.7 years and women at 59.5, compared to an OECD average of 63.5 and 62.3. As France has one of the world's longest life expectancies, workers spend on average a quarter century in retirement.

"It's a demographic problem. France is behind Malta as the country where we work the least," Budget Minister Francois Baroin told i-Tele.

Pensions account for the bulk of the social security budget, which can no longer in itself cover regular payments, with the extra being covered by state borrowing, forcing up France's public deficit.

According to the French government's panel studying pension finance, the shortfall between pension contributions and spending was 10.9 billion euros in 2008 and will rise to between 71.6 billion and 114.4 billion by 2050.

© 2010 AFP

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