Sarkozy defies French pensions protestors

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday defied massive street protests against his plan to raise the retirement age from 60, vowing to push on with what he called an "essential" bill.

"The main element of this reform is a new retirement age. This age will be gradually raised... to reach 62 in 2018," he said in a statement. "There is no question of backtracking on this point."

He reiterated that he would include in the reform special exceptions for those who start work younger than 18 and for certain physically demanding jobs, in his first reaction to Tuesday's mass protests.

Sarkozy says the pensions system must be reformed as part of efforts to bring down France's high budget deficit. Unions and political opponents say his plan puts an unfair burden on workers.

Tuesday's protests drew 1.12 million people according to the interior ministry and more than double that according to unions, who have vowed further action if he does not bend.

"I am attentive to the concerns that have been expressed," Sarkozy said, but insisted he would push on with the bill currently before parliament -- the centrepiece of his reform agenda as he eyes re-election in 2012.

"It is an essential reform," Sarkozy said. "There is no question of letting anyone distort the reform, because that would put in peril the rebalancing of our pensions system."

He reiterated earlier pledges to make allowances for those with long and tough careers, but opponents say he has refused to negotiate with them on the content of the reform and should go back to the drawing board.

"The government must start again from scratch with this reform, which is both unjust and ineffective," the leader of the main opposition Socialists, Martine Aubry, told France 2 television.

As the protests rumbled on Tuesday, the bill was presented to a stormy session in parliament, greeted with angry exchanges between the opposition and Sarkozy's right-wing support.

Aubry on Wednesday called on them to "halt the parliamentary debate" while counter-proposals by unions and the opposition are heard.

Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT union, told television station TF1 on Tuesday that the demonstration would force the government to rethink.

"Millimetre by millimetre, things are moving," he said.

Unions have vowed further action if Sarkozy does not bend and the political opposition raised the pressure on him on Wednesday with an afternoon meeting to decide their next move.

Some critics of the reform however were pessimistic about the chances of forcing Sarkozy to back down. The leader of the FO union Jean-Claude Mailly told France Info radio on Wednesday he had "not many illusions."

The government says the reform can 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.

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.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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