French workers strike against Sarkozy pension reform

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French workers took to the street Tuesday to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age, the centrepiece of his reform agenda as he prepares to seek re-election.

Unions called the showdown over Sarkozy's pensions reform bill, a key piece of legislation which the right-wing president insists is an "absolute priority" and which was to be presented to parliament later in the day.

Organisers hoped to match the level of a similar protest on June 24, when between 800,000 and two million marched. On Tuesday, 190 street rallies were planned in towns and cities across the country.

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."

Bernard Thibault, head of the larger CGT union, warned on Europe 1 radio: "If we don't get a hearing there will be further steps to this mobilisation, and nothing has been ruled out."

Ministers had done 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 to 62.

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.

"What's at stake here is the future of the entire retirement system in our country," said Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of Sarkozy's majority UMP in the National Assembly, where lawmakers were to debate the law later in the day.

"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," he warned, in an interview with the pro-government daily 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 the legal retirement age to 65 or even to 67 like in Germany, Scandinavia and Spain."

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 through their career and need to build up relatively long periods of paid employment to qualify for a full state pension.

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.

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

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

With the president struggling to regain the initiative, the opposition Socialists have accused him of standing by his earlier tax cuts for the rich while making ordinary workers pay for the pensions shortfall.

"Sixty years is a question of justice," Socialist leader Martine Aubry told the daily Le Parisien.

Unions claimed that up to two thirds of teachers were on strike, while the education ministry said it was less than a third, but in any case many schools were shut or operated a minimum child-minding service.

Two out of five TGV high-speed trains were running, with a greatly reduced service on many other lines, state railway operator SNCF said. Eurostar trains between Paris and London and Brussels were expected to run normally.

Meanwhile, around a quarter of flights into and out of Paris airports were cancelled or delayed, although long-haul services did not suffer as much as domestic and European routes.

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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