French unions gear up for May Day rallies

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France's top union leader predicted Thursday a strong turnout in May Day rallies meant to pile pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy to back away from pension reform.

Sarkozy's right-wing government has opened negotiations with union and business leaders on a major overhaul of state pensions that could see the legal retirement age pushed up to 60.

France's five main unions are calling for the annual May Day workers' events across the country on Saturday to act as a show of workers' determination to fight for their welfare benefits.

"We have listed 284 meetings, rallies, demonstrations, on a level comparable with last year," said Bernard Thibault, head head of the CGT union. "It's quite a good year."

Last year, more than one million people took part in marches nationwide, according to union organisers. Police put the figure much lower at 465,000.

"What we need is a very massive presence in the streets of people from all generations who are concerned by the draft bill on pensions," Thibault told France 3 television.

The government is planning to present legislation on the pensions overhaul to the cabinet for approval in July and the draft will then go to parliament, where Sarkozy's party holds a majority, before the end of the year.

Talk of raising the retirement age has been taboo in France where the right to a pension from age 60 has been enshrined since 1982, a legacy of Socialist president Francois Mitterrand's administration.

Like many other European countries, France is facing a funding shortfall in its state pension scheme due to a growing older population and fewer working-age people paying contributions.

This year, the state pension deficit is on track to reach nearly 11 billion euros (15 billion dollars) and Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said the shortfall could reach 100 billion euros in 2050.

Elected on a platform to shake up France's economy and public sector, Sarkozy is struggling with record-low approval ratings as he heads into the final two years of his mandate.

© 2010 AFP

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