Sarkozy faces mass protests against pension reform

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Strikes broke out Monday on the eve of a national stoppage called by French trade unions opposed to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

Secondary school teachers' unions told their members not to report for work to protest against the slashing of 7,000 jobs in the sector and other education reform plans by the government.

Primary as well as secondary teachers and university staff were also due to join protests on Tuesday that unions said would see hundreds of thousands take to the streets to fight the pension plans that are a cornerstone of Sarkozy's reforms.

The demonstrations come as the right-wing president limps into the last two years of his first term weakened by financial scandal and disastrous opinion poll ratings.

They are timed to coincide with the start of a parliamentary debate as Sarkozy's embattled labour minister Eric Woerth presents a draft pension reform law.

The bill would increase France's minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, which would still leave it low by international standards but would reverse a cherished and emblematic Socialist reform.

CGT union leader Bernard Thibault said Monday that he believed that even more people would turn out for the 190 marches planned in cities across France than in June, when more than 800,000 took part in demonstrations.

"We may have an exceptional day and, if it is exceptional, we will perhaps be at a turning point," he told France Inter radio.

Thibault's hopes were buoyed by an Obea/Infra Forces opinion poll Monday that said 73 percent of French approved of the protest marches. But the poll also showed 65 percent thought the government would not change course.

Sarkozy hopes to make pension reform the key measure of the final two years of his first mandate and the start of an electoral fightback, but it comes after a politically disastrous summer.

Woerth, the minister tasked with pushing the bill through parliament, has been weakened by a series of allegations surrounding his links to France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

The president has stood by him publicly, and the minister denies any wrongdoing or conflict of interest in his role as ruling party fundraiser, but the scandal rumbles on and several judicial probes are under way.

Sarkozy has also sparked international outrage and incensed the French left and human rights groups with a crackdown on Roma immigrants and threats to strip foreign-born criminals of French citizenship.

Voters tell pollsters they approve of the crackdown, but this has failed to translate into a fillip for Sarkozy's own ratings.

Likewise most voters say they believe pension reform is necessary, but again this fails to translate into improved ratings for the president.

Sensing weakness, the unions are determined the day of strikes and street rallies will be seen as a massive rejection of pension reform and predict disruption to transport, government, industry, banks and postal services.

But there is little sign Sarkozy is ready to back down, even if his chief of staff Claude Gueant said Sunday to say the government would propose amendments to the law this week.

France is running a huge public deficit and government thinks raising the retirement age could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030.

A minimum retirement age of 60 is well under the average of 64 in the OECD group of wealthy industrialised democracies, despite France having one of the world's longest life expectancies.

This translates to French men spending on average 24 years in retirement and French women 28, compared to an OECD average of 18 and 23, according to a report last year by the organisation.

© 2010 AFP

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