May Day rallies draw fewer numbers in France

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Hundreds of thousands of people took part in May Day rallies across France on Saturday but the turnout disappointed unions who had called for a massive show of force against pension reform.

Demonstrators held banners that read "Together we are fighting for jobs, wages and pensions" as they marched down main streets in Paris, Marseille, Lille and dozens of other cities.

Union leaders acknowledged that turnout was lower than last year, when more than 1.2 million people had come out into the streets, according to organisers, although police set the figure at 465,000.

Bernard Thibault, head of France's biggest union, the CGT, said more than 300,000 people had marched in protests in the French provinces, fewer than last year "when we were in the middle of an economic crisis."

In Paris, the main rally drew 45,000 people, far fewer than the 160,000 protesters who took part last year, according to union estimates.

This year's marches targeted plans by President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government for a major overhaul of state pensions that could see the legal retirement age pushed up from its current 60.

France's five main unions had called for the annual May Day events across the country to act as a show of workers' determination to fight for their pension benefits.

"With this umpteenth pension reform, we will once again see who ends up paying," said Veronique Manseguerra, a college teacher taking part in a protest in Nantes, western France.

"The rich hide behind a wall of money and the poor get poorer."

Union leaders called on French workers to show solidarity with their Greek counterparts as the Athens government was negotiating austerity measures to secure a massive financial aid deal from the IMF and the European Union.

"Greek workers are going to suffer a purge," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union, adding he was worried that similar measures could be applied to Portugal.

The head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, agreed that turnout was "slightly lower" than last year, but stressed that it was still stronger than during most traditional May Day protests.

Sarkozy has called a social summit for May 10 to discuss pension reform amid strong opposition from all of the unions who have pledged to fight the proposed changes tooth and nail.

Talk of raising the retirement age has been taboo in France where the right to a pension from age 60 has been enshrined since 1982, a legacy of Socialist president Francois Mitterrand's administration.

Like many other European countries, France is facing a funding shortfall in its state pension scheme due to a growing older population and fewer working-age people paying contributions.

This year, the state pension deficit is on track to reach nearly 11 billion euros (15 billion dollars) and Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said the shortfall could reach 100 billion euros in 2050.

The government is planning to present legislation on the pensions overhaul to the cabinet for approval in July and the draft will then go to parliament, where Sarkozy's party holds a majority, before the end of the year.

© 2010 AFP

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