French unions keep up pressure with latest pension protest

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French unions said Saturday they had brought millions onto the streets to protest government plans to reform pensions, but ministers disputed the figures and suggested the protests had peaked.

"Around 2.9 million" demonstrators have taken part, the CFDT union's deputy leader Marcel Grignard told AFP, "roughly the same number" as during the last day of action against raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 on September 23.

"This is a successful mobilisation. We expect the government finally to pay attention to this popular expression and take action on it's plan," Grignard said.

Another union, the CGT, put the turnout at three million.

But the interior ministry gave a far more modest total of 899,000 for the 200 or so rallies across France and said the numbers were down nearly a hundred thousand on last month's protests.

"Everyone recognises this evening that the movement has got no bigger," said government spokesman Luc Chatel.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth also stressed the necessity of the reforms and argued that the protesters had not managed to improve on their past turnout.

The protests were the first to be held at the weekend after two days of weekday strike action in September that failed to bow the government.

The previous day of action also ended in an argument over how many people took part: police said numbers were down from the previous September 7 protest at around one million, unions said they were up at three million.

In Paris on Saturday, unions said that 310,000 people took part, police said 63,000.

Indicative of the difficulty in establishing attendance, unions in the southern port of Marseille, locked down by a simultaneous dockers' strike, said that 150,000 people had demonstrated: police put the number at 19,000.

Nevertheless, public support for the protests appeared to be growing.

An opinion poll in the communist daily L'Humanite on Saturday suggested that 71 percent of French supported or sympathised with the action, while 12 percent were opposed.

After the last protests, Prime Minister Francois Fillon insisted that his government would push on with the controversial plan to raise the retirement age.

"Governing means listening to everyone. Governing means respecting everyone. But governing France also sometimes means being able to say 'no'," Fillon said.

Secretary of State for Public Affairs Georges Tron suggested some tweaks could be made to the bill, notably to make the retirement rules for women more lax.

But the core of the law had to remain unchanged in order to save the pension system, he said.

Unions have vowed to stage another day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday, October 12.

The pension reform bill has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and will be examined from October 5 by the upper house, where it is expected to pass easily.

Strike action against port labour reform as well as in solidarity with the anti-pension reform protests closed France's main commercial ports Friday, hitting freight traffic.

Some cruise ships in the Mediterranean were also to change their routes and two terminals were affected, forcing rationing of diesel in Corsica.

"Most commercial ports are closed", the government's transport ministry told AFP.

The strike action will be renewed every weekend until "a timetable for negotiations has been fixed", said the secretary general of the CGT union's ports and docks branch, Tony Hautbois.

© 2010 AFP

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