French unions challenge Sarkozy with new strikes, protests over raising retirement age to 62

By Jenny Barchfield, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

France slammed by new strikes over retirement age

PARIS — French commuters squeezed onto limited trains or fought for rare parking spots Thursday as a second round of strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 hobbled trains, planes and schools across the country.

Fewer than half of the Paris Metro’s lines were working normally, according to the RATP public transit network, and about half of France’s long-distance trains were being canceled, according to the SNCF state-run rail system.

Many flights were cancelled at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, the Paris airport authority said. Post offices and even opera houses were hit too.

Security was higher than usual at some Metro stations, where soldiers armed with machine guns were on patrol. In recent days, top officials have warned that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high.

The strikes are seen as a test for the conservative Sarkozy and are being watched elsewhere in Europe, as governments struggle to rein in costs with unpopular austerity measures after the Greek debt crisis scared markets and sapped confidence in the entire 16-nation euro currency.

In all, 232 demonstrations were being held nationwide. Thousands of protesters, many decked out in labor union T-shirts or brandishing signs, streamed into the Place de la Bastille, the iconic site of the French Revolution in Paris.

Union leaders are seeking a massive show of popular discontent, hoping to beat the Sept. 7 protests that brought at least 1.1 million people into the streets over reforms to the deficit-burdened pension system.

One protest in the southern city of Toulouse drew between 25,000 people — according to regional authorities — and 120,000, according to organizers. Those numbers were similar to the Sept. 7 protest.

Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want full retirement benefits.

As baby boomers reach retirement age and life expectancy increases in France, the conservative government insists it must raise the retirement age so the pension system can break even by 2018.

The leftist opposition sees retirement at 60 as a sacred symbol of France’s social welfare system. Opposition leaders also insisted any reforms must make more exceptions for certain categories of workers.

“We must use all the means, all the means at our disposal to put pressure on the government,” Martine Aubry, head of the opposition Socialist party, told RTL radio. “But we also think that those who started working very young, or those who had a hard job must still be able to retire at 60,”

“If the government remains deaf, we won’t stop at this,” said the head of the moderate CFDT union, Francois Chereque, told the Le Parisien daily.

A poll in the left-leaning Liberation daily suggested that 63 percent of respondents supported the strikers, while just 29 percent of those polled supported the government. Almost 60 percent opposed the plan to raise retirement age, with 37 percent in favor, according to the poll, conducted by the Viavoice agency on Sept. 16 and 17 with 1,002 respondents.

Paris commuter Jeanne Charieres said “people should react” to the pension reform plans.

“Many things could happen, people are really fed up,” said Charieres as she attempted to board a Metro at Paris’ busy Gare du Nord station.

The Eurostar undersea train service to London was not expected to be affected and the Thalys train from Belgium was only slightly disrupted, with nine in 10 trains running.

While the French capital’s bus lines were running almost normally, commuters on some Metro lines had to queue up just to get on the platforms.

Francoise Frugier emerged from Paris’ Saint Lazare station on her way to work Thursday with one thought in mind: How will she get home?

“It’s a pain every time. I would of course prefer that they didn’t strike,” said Frugier, 42, a real estate worker. Her husband took a day off to stay with their two children, because it was unclear whether there would be enough teachers for their school to open.

“We can’t continue” retiring at 60, she said. “I expect I will have to work much longer.”

Some commuters opted out of public transit, taking their cars or using Velib, Paris’ rent-a-bike network, including Paris commuter Xavier Roth.

“Even the scooters struggle to ride between cars, and walking takes a long time, so for me a bicycle is the ideal compromise,” he said.

The main teachers’ union said over 50 percent of teachers were expected to strike, though the Education Ministry put the figure at just over 25 percent.

At the SNCF national railway, about 38 percent of employees heeded the call to strike, according to the management. Some SNCF unions have already called for new strikes beyond Thursday.

France’s lower house of parliament has approved the pension reform, which goes soon to debate in the Senate.

Even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. Neighboring Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67.

The U.S. Social Security system is also gradually raising its retirement age to 67.

Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jean-Marie Godard and AP Television News reporter Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.

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