Raffarin wins pension reform battle despite protests

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French politicians passed a contentious pension reform bill yesterday, a government attempt to save the debt-burdened retirement system that has sent waves of angry workers on to the streets.

After one of the National Assembly's longest debates, deputies handed a vital victory to Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, who refused to back down despite strikes that paralysed transport for days. Deputies in the lower house passed the bill by 389-132, with M. Raffarin's conservative majority voting for it and Socialists and Communists opposed.

The measure, which increases the number of years employees must work to get full retirement benefits, faced strong opposition in the Assembly and among workers.

The bill is expected to go to the Senate on Monday and be adopted into law by the end of the month.

The first, and hardest, step was a marathon ordeal. Politicians voted after 156 hours of debate over 19 days, examining nearly 8,680 amendments filed by the Socialist and Communist opposition.

A total of 453 amendments were adopted, but few concessions were made. Debate was sometimes harsh - deputies even pitting themselves against each other in song: the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise", competing with "The Internationale", the old Communist anthem. François Fillon, the Minister of Social Affairs, announced: "We have secured the future of the retirement system."

As well as extending working years, the measure would remove a barrier between the public sector, which enjoys special privileges, and the private sector - a taboo in the past.

Public-sector workers currently have to be employed for 37.5 years to qualify for full benefits but, under the bill, this will increase to 40 years, as in the private sector, by 2008.

By 2012, everyone will have to work 41 years to receive full retirement benefits. By 2020, that advances to 42 years.

The bill triggered waves of strikes that occasionally paralysed transport around France, with air traffic controllers and train and urban transport employees walking out. M. Raffarin refused to back down, saying a sweeping change was needed to save the pension system from collapse.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist faction in the National Assembly, denounced the reform plan as archaic.

The Socialist and Communist opposition filed thousands of amendments to try to wear down the government forces. The longest debate on record, lasting 166 hours, was held in 1983-84 over a media bill.

M. Fillon began negotiations with union and business leaders in February. Unions began massive strikes in May to protest against the plan. Though disruptive and violent at times, those demonstrations never equalled the fervour of pension protests in 1995 that shut the country down and contributed to the downfall of the government of Alain Juppé.

**President Jacques Chirac set up a commission yesterday to study how France's secular ethic should be applied, amid debate over wearing Muslim headscarves in schools.

The 20-member commission has been asked to put forward proposals by the end of the year that satisfy an increasingly diverse country without compromising secularism. M. Chirac also held out the possibility of introducing a law to protect the secular ethic if all else failed.