French strikers rally in last ditch bid to halt pension bill

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Hundreds of thousands of French strikers were due to take to the streets on Thursday in a last-ditch bid to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to scrap a just passed law raising the retirement age.

At least 270 rallies were planned around France, as workers and students prepared for the ninth in a series of one-day mass protests and strikes, part of a movement that has threatened to paralyse the economy.

So far, the vast bulk of the demonstrations have been peaceful, but gangs of youths operating on the fringes of rallies or of school blockades have clashed with riot police in several cities and authorities are on high alert.

An opinion poll by the CSA institute published in Le Parisien at the start of this latest day of action showed that 65 percent of French voters support the trade unions' battle to protect worker's right to retire at 60.

But, with the reform now formally approved by parliament and many French families away enjoying the half-term school holidays, labour leaders admitted that they were not expecting to match previous mass mobilisations.

"We know there's a bit of tiredness, and the school holidays as well. We're not expecting to beat any records today, but it shows that we're keeping the pressure on," said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Force Ouvriere union.

He insisted, however, that the protesters have not given up, and that Sarkozy's reform still "sticks in their throat" and would translate itself into increased industrial tension in coming months.

"Even if the law has been voted, it doesn't mean people accept retirement has to be pushed back. It leaves deep scars, there's discontent, deep anger ... there will be tensions over salaries inside firms," he said.

At least one more day of action is planned after Thursday, on November 6, but the French parliament has approved Sarkozy's pensions bill and his aides say he intends to sign it into law on or around November 15.

France's Socialist opposition, which accuses the right-wing government of forcing ordinary workers to work longer to compensate for the failures of high finance, demanded that the president stay his pen.

"The plan is for the social movement to prevent the government from enacting a law that can't be good, because it has been rejected by seven French people in ten," said party spokesman Benoit Hamon.

Sarkozy's administration have all along insisted that raising the retirement age is not only necessary but "inevitable", with the French population ageing and the public deficit expanding.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said the law was "a good thing for the economy and for the balance of our public finances" and warned that any U-turn on the reform now would plunge the financial markets into "a zone of uncertainty".

Half of domestic flights were cancelled at Paris' second airport Orly, and authorities predicted that a third of them would be cancelled at the city's main international hub at Charles de Gaulle.

Rail services were also affected, with only six regional expresses and eight TGV high-speed links to Paris in 10 working.

Nevertheless, Paris public transport was expected to work normally.

The main protest rally of the day was to start in Paris at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT), and was expected to draw hundreds of thousands in its own right.

Sarkozy's approval rating is languishing at a new low of 29 percent, but he nevertheless hopes a pension reform victory can help restore his political fortunes in the run-up to re-election in 2012.

© 2010 AFP

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