French unions protest retirement age reform

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French labour unions staged a day of strikes and street rallies on Thursday to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age beyond 60 years.

As the day began it was not immediately clear how successful the protest would be. Opinion polls show most voters oppose the reform and support the strike, but Paris public transport was working virtually normally.

Education Minister Luc Chatel said just over 16 percent of primary school teachers had given notice of their intention to strike, around half the number who had done so before the last similar protest in March.

A strike by air traffic controllers in support of the protest saw 30 percent of flights from Paris Orly airport cancelled and 10 percent from Charles de Gaulle, the environment ministry said.

"What happens today will be fairly decisive for how things develop," said Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT, the largest of the broad coalition of trade unions organising the national protest.

"I'd like to see us exceed the mobilisation we achieved on March 23," he told Europe 1 radio, referring to France's last large-scale labour protest, when unions estimated turnout at 800,000 and the police at 350,000.

Polls published Thursday in two newspapers, Le Parisien and L'Humanite, found that around two thirds of French voters were prepared to join one of the dozens of rallies being organised around the country.

This appears to reflect growing opposition to Sarkozy's plan, which the government only confirmed this week. A previous poll conducted this month by CSA/CECOP showed a narrow majority accepted the change as inevitable.

In common with much of Europe, France is grappling with a huge public deficit, and the government argues that reforming pension rules and delaying the minimum retirement age will help control mounting debt.

Many of France's neighbours have announced harsh spending cuts but Sarkozy, who is suffering record unpopularity and faces a re-election fight in two years, has been cautious, refusing to speak of an austerity programme.

Nevertheless, this week ministers confirmed what had long been suspected: that he plans to abolish retirement at 60, a cherished symbol for the French left of its victories under late president Francois Mitterrand.

Sarkozy attacked Mitterrand's decision as "idiocy" in private this week, according to leaked comments, and the leader of his UMP party, Xavier Bertrand, has insisted France cannot afford to maintain the measure.

French retirees receive 85 percent of their pension payments from state schemes, compared to an average of 61 percent among member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Although 60 is the theoretical minimum age for retirement on a full state pension, various special schemes exist in the public sector for those with jobs perceived as tough or who started in work in their teens.

On average French men retire at 58.7 years and women at 59.5, compared to an OECD average of 63.5 and 62.3, according to the body.

"It's a demographic problem. France is behind Malta as the country where we work the least," Budget Minister Francois Baroin told i-Tele.

France has one of the world's highest life expectancies and this, combined with their earlier retirements, gives them among the longest periods on pensions in the world, 28 years for women and 24 for men.

Pensions account for the bulk of the social security budget, which can no longer in itself cover payments, with the excess being covered by state borrowing, forcing up France's public deficit.

According to the French government's panel studying pension finance, the shortfall between pension contributions and spending was 10.9 billion euros in 2008 and will rise to between 71.6 billion and 114.4 billion by 2050.

© 2010 AFP

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