French take to the streets again for fading pension protests

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Tens of thousands of French protesters took to the streets once more Saturday for what might prove to be the last in their recent series of marches against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform.

Parliament has already passed a fiercely contested law increasing the pension age from 60 to 62, and French trade unions are no longer united in calling for more street protests, so the movement appears to be fading.

According to the interior ministry, around 142,000 people had marched in 132 separate rallies around the country by midday, down sharply from the 198,000 which had done so on the last big day of protest on October 28.

But the largest march, in Paris, had yet to get underway and union leaders were putting on a brave face, insisting that continued protests could yet force Sarkozy to agree amendments to the law before in comes into effect.

"Today's day of protest marks another high point, there will be others," Bernard Thibault, the head of the powerful CGT told the Communist daily L'Humanite, insisting that his union would "go on right to the end."

"For us, the key date is July 1, 2011, when the measures we are opposed to come into effect. Between now and then we have a very real chance of creating the kind of strength necessary to open negotiations," he said.

Sarkozy's ministers have said they are ready to talk about some measures to soften the blow of longer years of pension payments for some workers, but the president insists raising the minimum pension age is "essential".

Other labour leaders appear ready to concede on this point.

"If I said today 'We're going to force the president to back down' no-one would believe me. People would say, 'That guy there, he's dreaming'," admitted Francois Chereque, leader of the large CFDT union.

Saturday's marches are the eighth in a series of large-scale days of protest, but a series of parallel strikes in the oil industry and other key sectors that once threatened to paralyse the economy has now ended.

© 2010 AFP

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