Sarkozy defies French pensions protests

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy stood firm Wednesday on his plan to raise the retirement age, despite massive street protests a day earlier and union threats of more strikes to come.

Sarkozy offered some sweeteners to his plan but refused to give up on raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, the next key stage in his reform agenda as he eyes the next presidential election in 2012.

"There is no question of backtracking on this point," Sarkozy said in a statement.

Opponents reacted angrily, a day after a mass strike shut schools and brought more than a million protestors into the streets.

Sarkozy said the law would allow 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.

Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon said Sarkozy offered only "scant improvements".

"The reform is one of lies," Hamon told reporters, saying Sarkozy's proposed improvements to the bill were old pledges that he had lined up in anticipation of 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. They have made counter proposals including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.

"The slight improvements offered by the president do not solve the basic problems of the reform", the CFDT said, in a statement ahead of a meeting with other unions. "It seems more action will be necessary."

Tuesday's protests drew 1.12 million people, according to the interior ministry, and more than double that according to unions.

"I am attentive to the concerns that have been expressed," Sarkozy said, but insisted he would push on with the bill currently before parliament.

"It is an essential reform," Sarkozy said. "There is no question of letting anyone distort the reform."

Workers starting younger than 18 and making pensions contributions for the required number of years would still retire at 60 "or even sooner", he said.

And he offered to broaden opportunities for workers in physical jobs to apply for earlier retirement.

Unions scheduled an afternoon meeting on Wednesday to decide their next move, as the opposition too raised the pressure.

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

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, the OECD says.

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 presidential election.

© 2010 AFP

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