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French pension strikes test Sarkozy
General strike and protests hit France as unions angry with pension reform step up pressure on the government.
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2010 20:37 GMT
Tuesday's action against the government's planned pension overhaul is the country's sixth strike since June [AFP]

Strikes and protests have been held across France, with public workers and students mounting pressure on the government to scrap its pension overhaul.

Tuesday's action disrupted plane, train and bus travel as well as school and post services. The country also faces potential fuel shortages from ongoing walkouts by oil refinery and port workers.

Striking workers clashed with police in cities across the country, while Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, pledged to crack down on "troublemakers" and guarantee public order.

Police used tear gas to break up protests in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, and cars were burnt or overturned in the suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, French media reported. Hooded protesters in the southern city of Lyon torched cars and looted shops after using cafe chairs to smash store and bank windows.

France's CGT union said 3.5 million people joined the nationwide street protests on Tuesday, which would make it one of the biggest demonstrations over the issue. Government estimates of the size of the protests are much lower. The interior ministry said 1.1 million took part in the strikes.

Tuesday was the sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests since June.

The protesters are trying to prevent parliament from approving a bill that would raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively.

Unions are hoping to step up their action in the run-up to the senate vote on the bill expected later this week, in what is being seen as a showdown between workers and Sarkozy.

'Limited options'

Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said the government seemed to be in a stronger position, with the unions' options for manoeuvre becoming increasingly limited.

"By striking at oil refineries they've been limiting the fuel, but now the government says they will have fuel supplies back to normal within for or five days by calling on its own reserves," she said.

"It seems that everything the unions try to to, the government has an answer to... It does really seem that there is no turning back for this government plan.

Pension Reform

 

  Under current rules, the French can retire at 60, providing they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years.
  Retirees are entitled to a full pension when they are 65.
  The planned reform would raise the minimum retirement age to 62 by 2018, the qualification to 41.5 years, and the pension age to 67.
  Officials say the reforms would save about $95bn.

"Sarkozy has got a reputation of being a tough man. That's how he built his political career. He can't afford to appear to be the one who backed down in the face on this kind of union pressure."

Fuel shortages have hit motorists, with nearly one in three of France's 12,500 gas stations suffering reduced supplies, due to striking oil refinery workers.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled on Tuesday and train services in many regions were cut in half.

Al Jazeera's Emma Hayward, reporting from Paris, said despite the disruption there was "widespread support for the strikes".

"A poll last night said that 70 per cent of people support the strikes. But the president is standing firm. He says that these reforms have to go ahead."

Sarkozy, who has been holding a summit with German and Russian leaders in northern France, said he would be returning to restore calm in the nation.

"In a democracy, everyone can express themselves but you have to do so without violence or excesses," he said on Tuesday.

"I will hold a meeting as soon as I return to Paris to unblock a certain number of situations, because there are people who want to work and who must not be deprived of petrol."

The protests have blown into the biggest test yet for Sarkozy whose popularity ratings are dismal 18 months before a presidential election polls show the opposition left would win as things stand today.

The main points of the pension bill have passed through both houses of France's parliament and, following the next senate vote, could soon be signed into law.

The government has said that the reform is the only way to reduce the national budget deficit. It argues that 62 is among the lowest retirement ages in the world, that the French are living much longer than they used to and that the pension system is losing money.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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