French lawmakers approve raising retirement age from 60 to 62 despite union-backed protests

By Jamey Keaten, AP
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

French lawmakers OK raising retirement age to 62

PARIS — Despite vocal protests, French lawmakers approved President Nicolas Sarkozy’s sweeping retirement reforms Wednesday, including a highly contested measure to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, voted 329-233 to pass the broad retirement package, clearing a crucial first legislative hurdle and sending it onto the Senate for debate starting Oct. 1.

The retirement reforms are one of the pillars of Sarkozy’s conservative agenda and a prime target of France’s powerful unions. Wednesday’s vote puts France on track to become the latest European Union country to require workers to stay on the job longer because of a deficit-plagued pension system.

Passage was all but certain because Sarkozy’s allies had a majority in the assembly. But left-leaning opponents, emboldened by huge protests across France last week, mustered loud and vociferous opposition.

Inside the chamber, Assembly President Bernard Accoyer cut short an increasingly boisterous overnight debate and accused critics for stalling tactics. In response, Socialists angrily shouted “Resign!”

Hundreds of protesters, waving banners and shouting “We are mistreated!” rallied Wednesday on the Place de la Concorde — across the Seine River from the Assembly — to demand that the government scrap the plan.

The central and most controversial reform requires workers to stay on the job until 62 to collect a full state pension.

Even then, France would still have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. In contrast, Germany recently raised its retirement age from 65 to 67 to offset a shrinking, aging population, and the U.S. is also gradually raising its retirement age to 67.

As the vote neared, the swelling crowd crossed the river toward the Assembly, where throngs of riot police kept guard. Police officials said 6,500 people demonstrated, but the CGT labor union put the figure at least 20,000.

Protests were also planned outside the offices of Sarkozy’s party in dozens of French cities.

Lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, who heads Sarkozy’s UMP party in the Assembly, called the reform plan “one of the most important” in the five-year parliamentary session and said many French understood it was needed.

“(They) know there is no other solution than to pass this courageous reform — begun in all of Europe’s big countries — and that we have to do this to revive France,” he told the chamber right before the vote.

Critics accused the conservatives of leaning too hard on workers.

“We, too, think reform is indispensable,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Socialist leader in the Assembly. “But unlike you, we do not accept that the weight and the price of the crisis is borne by its victims.”

Major labor unions plan an open-ended strike starting Sept. 23 over the measure.

A week ago, at least 1.1 million people turned out in 220 French cities to protest the proposals, and a strike disrupted trains, planes, hospitals and mail delivery across the country.

The controversy comes as Sarkozy’s government is battling heavy criticism over its newly energized policy of deporting Gypsies, also known as Roma, who lack residency papers back to their home countries, mainly in Eastern Europe.

Sarkozy’s approval ratings are hovering near the lowest levels since he took office in 2007.

Critics fear the pension reforms will erode one of France’s hard-won labor achievements, but proponents say the country can’t afford to have its state-backed retirement program running deficits for years as French citizens live longer.

Associated Press Writer Sylvie Corbet and Jean-Marie Godard contributed to this report.

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