French unions protest at pensions reform

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The Independent Online

French unions laid down a powerful challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age yesterday by bringing an estimated two million protesters onto the streets.

Six French union federations organised a one-day general strike and over a hundred demonstrations across the country in response to retirement reforms announced by the government last week.

The reform would progressively raise the retirement age, fixed at 60 since 1981, to 62 by 2018. Civil servants, who until now have benefited from lower pension contribution rates, would be forced to pay the same as private sector employees.

The largest anti-government demonstration took place in Paris, where unions claimed that 130,000 protestors turned out. The police placed the figure at 47,000.

The banner leading the procession was relatively moderate, reading: “Together, let’s act for employment, salaries, working conditions and pensions”. Others were snappier: “Lets tax shares not pensions”; “Granny in trouble”; or “Sarko, retire!” Some were bizarre. One middle-aged woman, wearing a pointed newspaper hat, waved a stick with a tiny cardboard label reading simply “Grr…”.

Members of the CFDT union federation, clad in orange T-shirts and baseball caps, blew whistles and vuvuzela trumps. From speakers mounted on a white van, chants blared out demanding “”.

Walid, 54, was collecting signatures for the French Communist Party’s petition. He said that his party wanted higher taxes on anything that does not create jobs, like financial transactions. “It’s a question of civilisation”, he said. “We could afford better pension policies if there were more jobs. The reform is part of a single problem that represents everything that is wrong in France – unemployment, taxation, social insecurity.”

The one-day strike caused significant disruptions to public transport, school, postal services, radio and TV. At the national rail company SNCF, almost 40 per cent of employees were on strike.

Over a hundred demonstrations took place in other French cities and towns. Francois Chereque, General Secretary of the CFDT union federation, was confident that the target of 2,000,000 protesters across France had been reached. “It’s the largest demonstration of the year. This shows the feeling of injustice about this brutal reform,” he said.

President Sarkozy has promised to discuss the reforms with unions in the autumn but insists that he will stand firm on the age increase. Bernard Thibault, General Secretary of the CGT union federation, warned that the strike was only the beginning of a raucous and determined campaign against the government’s plans.