French unions fight for early retirement has as

French trade unions yesterday accused the government and employers of hypocrisy after a succession of senior politicians warned that reducing the retirement age to 55 was out of the question. So many people in their 50s were being given early retirement to suit state employers and big business, the unions said, that there was no reason not to introduce retirement at 55 for all.

The demand for earlier retirement is part of a trade union campaign for improved social benefits which, they argue, could also increase the number of jobs for young people. Despite a multiplicity of government schemes, France's unemployment rate, at 12.7 per cent, remains one of the highest in Europe, and one in four people under 25 has no job.

In what was seen by many as the thin end of a very big wedge, French lorry drivers won the possibility of retiring at the age of 55 from their two-week strike last year. Now the unions are seeking to build on this victory, encouraged by public concern in France about the unemployment level and unalloyed enthusiasm for the idea of a longer retirement.

At the end of last week, five unions called a national transport strike for 24 January in support of a demand for retirement at 55 for all transport workers. Train drivers already enjoy this condition; according to the strike settlement reached in December, lorry drivers will qualify for it after 20 years on the road. So it is local transport workers, including bus, tram and metro drivers, who are expected to spearhead the strike.

Although there were several local transport strikes through the autumn and most had only a limited impact, the government decided this time to take the initiative. Over the weekend, it launched a barrage of public statements rejecting the idea of retirement at 55 for all.

President Jacques Chirac himself released the first volley, telling an audience in his local region of Correze that, while he understood the popular desire to retire earlier, "France cannot ignore economic and demographic realities". Two former Prime Ministers then weighed in, Edouard Balladur and Raymond Barre, who said the claim was "a very dangerous trend for the future" and urged the government "to hold the line".

The current Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, said that retirement at 55 was "not possible financially" and that there was "no question of the government bending". Only those who worked more than 39 hours a week, he said, could have any claim to retire at 55.

Even the opposition Socialists and left-of-centre press seemed scared that retirement at 55 could become a popular rallying cry. The newspaper Liberation called it a "simpleton's utopia", while several MPs not known as moderates warned that retirement at 55 could "not become a general rule".

Behind the politicians' statements lies the recognition that France's state pension system is in enough difficulty already without a new increase in the number of pensioners. Currently, employees' contributions are used to pay directly for the pensions of those already retired and several sectors are running short of money. A system of pension funds, and the possibility of private top-up pensions, is to be introduced, but there is a deep public suspicion of any change.