French unions mull options as pension reform heads to Senate

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A day after French unions say they brought millions onto the streets against government plans to reform pensions, focus turns to the Senate, which on Tuesday begins its examination of the bill.

Unions have staged three days of protest in less than a month, and have vowed to continue demonstrations and strikes, but the government was unbowed on the law's fundamentals after the latest rallies.

With typical dissonance, unions said around three million people took part in Saturday's protests, while the government put the figure at less than a million.

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.

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.

The 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 albeit after some noisy discussions.

The leader of the Socialist opposition, Martine Aubry, is due at the Senate on Tuesday morning to rally her troops.

With a rowdy debate expected as opposition senators table hundreds of amendments, President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party has insisted on the law's "red lines" including raising the retirement age and balancing the pension books.

"When we give some people perks, we will seek counterbalances," said the UMP senators' leader Gerard Longuet.

Highlighting the bill's importance ahead of presidential elections in 2012, UMP secretary general Xavier Bertrand told senators last week that law is "the mother of all reforms" under Sarkozy.

"The Senate debate will allow the bill to evolve through amendments on a certain number of issues, handicapped workers, the elderly unemployed, asbestos victims," said government spokesman Luc Chatel.

Unions and opposition politicians say the pension plan puts an unfair burden on workers. They have made counter proposals including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.

The new law would particularly penalise anybody who is unable to work the full 40 or 41 years required to qualify for a full pension -- a population which includes a huge proportion of women.

The bill is a plank of Sarkozy's administration, with the leader's popularity at an all-time low of 28 percent, according to the latest poll, and with 18 months to go until presidential elections.

Unions are planning another day of action on October 12 but have so far resisted calling for renewable industrial action if the government remains intransigent on the bill's fundamentals.

The Senate debate is expected to last until October 15.

© 2010 AFP

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