Tensions mount as French lawmakers near vote on pension reform that would raise retirement age

By Jamey Keaten, AP
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tensions rise as French pension reform vote nears

PARIS — An overnight parliament session turned into a shouting match as France’s lower house neared a vote Wednesday on a bill to raise the retirement age to 62 — a pillar of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform agenda and a prime target of France’s powerful unions.

Despite the uproar by the Socialist-led opposition at the National Assembly, the government appeared all but certain to make France the latest European country to require workers to stay on the job longer because of a deficit-plagued pension system.

Hundreds of protesters, waving banners and shouting “We are mistreated!” led a demonstration 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 provision of the retirement reforms sought by Sarkozy would require workers to stay on the job until 62 — up from 60 — to collect a full state pension.

France would still have one of the lowest retirement ages on the continent. 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.

Inside the chamber, Assembly President Bernard Accoyer on Wednesday cut short an increasingly boisterous overnight session, blaming critics of “obstruction” and attempts to stall debate on the bill.

In response, Socialists angrily shouted “Resign!” Major labor unions plan an open-ended strike starting Sept. 23 over the measure.

A week ago, at least 1.1 million people poured into the streets 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, without proper 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 retirement reform will erode one of France’s hard-won achievements in the labor system, but proponents say the country can’t afford a state-backed retirement program running deficits for years as Europeans live longer.

Associated Press Writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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