French unions in new set of strikes

Tens of thousands of people take to the streets for the second major protest against pension reform plans in a month.

france protests
Police said 65,000 people took to the streets while organisers put the figure at 300,000 [AFP] 

French trade unions have launched another set of strikes in protest over an unpopular pension reform, with workers staging a 24-hour walkout.

Organisers said that nearly three miliion people had taken part in more than 230 demonstrations across the country on Thursday, but the interior ministry said support for the protests had dropped from earlier in the month with just 997,000 people taking part.

Demonstrators are hoping to pressure Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to overturn plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The bill has already been passed by France’s lower house of parliament and will be debated next month by the senate, where it is expected to pass with ease.

Up to 50 per cent of flights were cancelled at airports in the capital and other cities, airport authorities said on Thursday morning.

‘Strike fatigue’

But Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Paris, said the protests had not brought the capital to a complete standstill.

“Buses have been operating, the underground system has been operating although there have been slightly larger gaps between the trains than normal.”

She added that despite unions claiming Thursday’s protests would be “massive”, the turnout appeared lower than on previous occasions.

“One gets perhaps a sense that people are beginning to suffer from strike fatigue. This is the fifth strike in six months, in fact the second in two weeks and of course every time a worker goes on strike they lose a day’s pay,” she said.

“I think people are starting to get the feeling that this change to the retirement age is a done deal and that may be why not as many people came out today as have done on previous occasions.”

But the CGT labour union released a statement saying that the turnout required the president and parliament “to take full account of the exasperation provoked by this law”.

“This is not over yet,” Bernard Thibault, the head of the union. said. Unions were to meet on Friday to decide on possible upcoming protests.

“If the government doesn’t alter its intransigent position, it will obviously be our duty and responsibility as unions to envisage further initiatives,” Thibault said.

‘Unfair burden’

According to an opinion poll published by the communist daily L’Humanite, some 68 per cent of the public support the strike, while only 15 per cent are against it.

Under the current law, French men and women can retire at 60, but they only get a full pension if they have paid social security contributions for a given period, which for most people now in work is 40.5 years.

Under the new law, the number of years of payroll social security payments needed to get a full pension is due to increase in stages to 41.5 years, and the minimum retirement age is to go up to 62.

The age at which retirees can get a full state pension even if they have not paid the required number of years is currently 65. The new law calls for this to increase gradually to 67 by 2018.

Unions and opposition politicians say the plan puts an unfair burden on workers, particularly women, part-timers and the former unemployed who might struggle to hit the 41.5 year requirement.

They have made counter proposals, including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.

The government argues the reform could save $90bn by 2030 at a time when France’s public deficit is well above the eurozone target of three per cent.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies