French unions launch 3rd pension plan protest in a month

By Jean-marie Godard, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

French unions launch new pension plan protests

PARIS — Hundreds of thousands of protesters young and old demonstrated in France on Saturday, waving union flags and pressing conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to drop plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It was the third day of protests in a month.

Unions tried a new tactic, scheduling the protest for a Saturday instead of a weekday to draw families, youths and private-sector employees who don’t show up during the workweek. Pockets of students marched among the unions, and some parents carried children on their shoulders.

France — one of many indebted European countries trying to scale back spending — says its money-losing pension system will collapse without reform. The government casts the plan as the only responsible course of action and insists people need to work longer because they are living longer.

French unions, however, see retirement at 60 as a firmly entrenched right in a country attached to generous state benefits.

Michelle Notte, a 68-year-old retiree, marched with her 9-year-old grandson in Paris.

“I stand for my children, my grandchildren. It is for them that I demonstrate,” she said, adding that in retirement it’s “a joy to have free time, to take care of one’s grandchildren, to take care of others.”

Police put nationwide turnout at 899,000, down 10 percent from protests Sept. 23. But unions said the movement was going strong: The CFDT union said 2.9 million protested, on par with last time.

“There are more and more people who are against this injustice and want to send a strong message to the government — this is the last opportunity to change this draft reform and to make it more fair,’” said CFDT head Francois Chereque.

Paris protesters marched past the site of the former Bastille prison, the famous revolutionary site. Several young protesters danced atop a van and led a call-and-response: “Retirement! At age 60!”

“Young people are sick of seeing social benefits disappear,” said Thomas Roller, an 18-year-old high school student who marched in Paris. “France is becoming a country where it’s ‘every man for himself,’ and we don’t want that.”

Organizers have counted on youth turnout to convince the government that even people who don’t generally think about old age are worried. But the spokesman of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Frederic Lefebvre, told France-Info radio that there wasn’t any significant youth participation and said the movement was on the decline.

Two protests in September each drew around a million people throughout the country, according to the government, though unions gave much higher figures, up to 3 million.

Those demonstrations were accompanied by broad strikes that hobbled train and commuter traffic, unlike Saturday, when there were few disruptions to public services. Dockers have been blocking the port in the southern city of Marseille, however, and 39 ships carrying oil, chemicals and other products were awaiting entry.

France is among many European governments looking to cut costs and chip away at some cherished but costly benefits that underpin the good life on the continent. A euro110 billion ($140 billion) bailout for Greece has added to the sense of urgency this year.

Conservative French lawmakers have already pushed the pension reform through its first legislative hurdle in the lower house of parliament. The Senate takes the measure up Tuesday, and protesters are planning to gather there too as debate gets under way. Another national day of protests is planned Oct. 12.

The French government has expressed willingness to alter some language in the bill, but union leaders say their offers aren’t enough.

The reform’s aim is make the money-draining pension system break even by 2018. Though the minimum retirement age would be 62, people would have to wait until age 67 if they want full pension benefits, up from age 65 today.

France’s retirement age will still be lower than in comparable countries. Germany is set to raise its retirement age over the coming years from 65 to 67 to offset a shrinking, aging population, and the United States is gradually doing the same.

Associated Press writers Angela Doland, Nicolas Garriga and Paolo Santalucia in Paris contributed to this report.

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