French workers stage mass protest against pension reform

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Hundreds of thousands of French workers took to the streets Tuesday to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age to 62, the centrepiece of his reform agenda.

Labour unions called the showdown over the pensions bill, which Sarkozy insists he will push through as an "absolute priority" and which was presented to a stormy session in parliament even as the marches continued.

Sarkozy told lawmakers from his majority UMP party they must remain "firm" in their defence of raising the retirement age from its current 60, a party official said.

The strikers were on course to build on a similar protest on June 24, when between 800,000 and two million marched, with the interior ministry confirming 450,000 marching outside Paris and at least 80,000 in the capital.

Labour leaders offered much higher estimates, and the Paris march was so large that the colourful column of drumming and banner-wielding marchers was forced to split in two and take two parallel routes through the city.

Under a banner marked with the French republican slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," a huge column of brightly dressed trade unionists and supporters had earlier filed out of the Place de la Republique in the east of the capital.

In southern France, protesters braved heavy storms to turn out in large numbers, while in Paris and the north they marched in bright autumn sunshine, in a cheerful mood with no reports of serious crowd trouble.

The mood inside parliament was darker, and the bill was greeted with angry exchanges between the opposition and Sarkozy's right-wing support. The session was briefly suspended after Communist deputies produced a petition.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he was open to debate so the reform could pass as quickly as possible, so that "French citizens' pensions can still be paid tomorrow.

"That won't be the case if we stay where we are," he warned.

This was dismissed by the Socialist leader in the assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who accused the government of rushing through a half-baked reform that is "only costed to 2018" and leaves ordinary workers footing the bill.

Schools, the national rail network, some public services and domestic air services were severely disrupted, and passengers complained of long delays on commuter train services and metros into Paris.

"We can see that employees are mobilised," Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT union, told RTL radio, predicting that the turn-out would match or more likely exceed that of June. "It looks like a success."

Ministers did little to lower the temperature in the run-up to the day of action, insisting pension reform is necessary and there will be no retreat on raising the minimum retirement age by 2018.

The government argues this could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030 at a time when France's public deficit -- at around eight percent of GDP -- is well above the eurozone target of three percent.

"If we don't do anything the deficit in the pension system will hit 20 billion euros in 2010, 45 in 2020 and probably 70 in 2030," Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the UMP in the National Assembly, told Le Figaro.

"All the reports conclude we're heading to this dead end, and all the other European countries have faced up to this by raising legal retirement to 65 or even to 67 like in Germany, Scandinavia and Spain," he said.

At 62, the minimum retirement age would still be well under the average of around 64 in the OECD group of wealthy democracies, despite France having one of the world's longest life expectancies.

But French workers also pay high social charges on their salaries, and on an hour-by-hour basis are among the world's most productive.

Retirement at 60 was seen as one of the left's emblematic victories in the first term of late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, and its defence is seen as a bulwark against future liberal economic reform.

Sarkozy has been weakened by a summer of scandal and his personal approval rating -- around 34 percent according to several polls -- is at an all-time low, two years before the 2012 presidential election.

The bill was be presented to parliament by Labour Minister Eric Woerth, himself undermined by his implication in a series of financial scandals linked to France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

An Obea/Infra Forces opinion poll on the eve of the action said 73 percent of French voters approve of the protest but also that 65 percent thought the government would not change course.

© 2010 AFP

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