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French unions stage last-stand protest on pensions

French trade unions staged an eighth round of street protests across the country on Saturday to show their anger at a rise in the retirement age, even though parliament has already passed the reform.

world Updated: Nov 06, 2010 21:11 IST

French trade unions staged an eighth round of street protests across the country on Saturday to show their anger at a rise in the retirement age, even though parliament has already passed the reform.

Early government estimates suggested turnout, at 142,000 by early afternoon, was less than a third of participation at the height of the crisis in mid-October.

"It's normal that the turnout is slightly lower, given that the law has passed the vote (in parliament), Francois Chereque, leader of the large CFDT union, told reporters as a Paris march started out under grey skies and drizzle.

CGT union leader Bernard Thibault, who told the left-wing l'Humanite newspaper his organisation had signed up 8,500 new members since protests began two months ago, told reporters he was still counting on a significant turnout.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to surrender on the flagship reform of his presidency despite eight days of mass protests and strikes since September that at one stage caused serious fuel shortages, transport disruption, and sporadic violence.

The French protests were the biggest of a series of demonstrations across Europe against austerity measures, as governments struggle to cut public debt and budget deficits in the wake of the global economic crisis.

The pension reform, now awaiting what is expected to be a hitch-free clearance from France's Constitutional Council before Sarkozy can sign it into law, will raise the minimum and fully pensionable retirement ages by two years, to 62 and 67 respectively.

While the change is opposed by between two-thirds and three-quarters of French people according to opinion polls, a climbdown would have left Sarkozy's presidency in ruins, given that he swept to power in 2007 on promises of a break with past inertia.

His stand triggered an unusually strong show of union solidarity throughout weeks of protests, 24-hour stoppages and rolling strikes at railways and oil refineries.

But that unity is now fraying, with the moderate CFDT signalling that it is time to move on.

CGT union leader Thibault is under heavier pressure to keep to a harder line. CGT bosses further down the chain fronted rolling strikes at oil refineries at the height of the protest movement, a move he had not overtly sought.

On the eve of Saturday's march, CFDT chief Chereque made it clear the ambition of the protests had changed.

"If I said today 'we're going to force the president into retreat', nobody would believe me," he said. "They'd say, 'he's dreaming'."

After protests where many young participants said they'd lose job-start opportunities if older people stayed in work longer, Chereque says he wants employers to open discussions now about ways to boost employment at both ends of the spectrum.

The reform bill, which seeks to balance finances as the number of pensioners surges relative to the number of working people whose taxes fund their retirement, was adopted in parliament on Oct. 27.

A first post-adoption protest on Oct. 28 drew a national turnout of 560,000 people, according to the government count, or about half of the turnout of previous protests.