French President Nicolas Sarkozy has rejected calls to back down on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 years after a day of nationwide strikes to protest his government's plan to overhaul pensions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday he was willing to tweak his proposed legislation to overhaul pensions but refused to back down on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018.
One of Sarkozy’s few concessions concerns special exceptions for those who start working before the age of 18 and for certain physically demanding jobs.
French Junior Minister Georges Tron told BFM radio that proposed concessions would cost up to one billion euros.
The announcement comes as French unions threatened to continue striking over the unpopular reform.
Tuesday's street protests drew over a million people nationwide in what was seen as a high-stakes showdown between the country’s largest labour unions and Sarkozy's administration.
Speaking to the mass crowds in Paris on Tuesday afternoon, François Chereque, leader of the CFDT union said: “If the government refuses to negotiate there will be further protests. There are other ways of paying for our pensions other than raising the minimum retirement age, such as raising taxes on those earning the most.”
The protest in pictures
Bernard Thibault of the CGT union and François Chereque of the CFDT lead the protest march, which set off at 2.30pm.
Brigitte and Michel, both 73, came to fight for the rights of younger generations.
Socialist Party councillor Yannick Trigance: "The government has no choice but to listen to the protesters, who are not demanding more rights but to save those they already have."
Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT union, said turnout was better than expected and hinted at a possible general strike, saying: "If they don't respond and they don't pay heed, there will be a follow-up, and nothing is ruled out at this stage."
Francois Chereque, of the CFDT union: “If the government refuses to negotiate there will be further protests. There are other ways of paying for our pensions other than raising the minimum retirement age, such as raising taxes on those earning the most.”
"I worked for 35 years and I get 300 euros a month for my pension. Does that seem right to you?" - a 95-year-old pensioner.
Sandra, 8, is out with her grandmother because her school is closed: "I'd rather protest than go to school."
"I came to defend the rights of women," says Claudine Thomas of the Femmes Solidaires (Women's Solidarity) association. "Women are particularly hard hit by the proposed reforms - 80% of pensioners living in poverty are women."
These protesters chant: "Play Sarko-dice and you will lose."
Young people also came, not for pensions but for jobs. The poster reads: "My parents are exhausted, and I want to work."
Opposition Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry urged Sarkozy to “restart from zero” the effort to reform pensions. “In a democracy, when the people are on the streets, when they are more than two million and many more that support them, we need to listen,” Aubry said Wednesday.
Socialist Party spokesperson Benoit Hamon said concessions announced by Sarkozy were "tiny improvements" that would do little to appease the unhappy public.
Union leaders are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to decide what to do next and whether to call for another strike, possibly on Oct 18.
A big gamble for all
The strikes were planned to coincide with Labour Minister Eric Woerth’s presentation of proposed pension reforms to parliament on Tuesday.
Woerth, for his part, has been embroiled for months in the ongoing L’Oreal heiress scandal, one of a number of controversies that have dragged Sarkozy’s approval rating down to record lows.
Sarkozy, however, remains undeterred by his low poll ratings and the challenge from the unions, stating repeatedly that he will do what it takes to get the unpopular legislation passed.
A day after the massive rallies, the French press predicted that Sarkozy would not gamble away his political future by accepting a defeat on pensions, but would likely make some concessions to the opposition and to unions.
The international media came up with similar verdicts in their coverage of France's pensions battle.
In an online editorial, BBC’s Europe Editor Gavin Hewitt wrote that “the expectation is that Mr Sarkozy will eventually get his way […] For the French president, these are crucial weeks that may well determine his political future.
According to UK’s Guardian, “this is a make-or-break moment for the unions and for Nicolas Sarkozy, who sees a pensions victory as the centre piece of a range of reforms which will transform his faltering presidency.
Urgent austerity measures
Financial dailies warned that the pension burden is steadily becoming less sustainable and that urgent action was required.
This year alone, the pension programme is expected to run a 10-billion-euro deficit. That debt, they predict, will skyrocket to 50 billion euros by 2020 if the austerity proposals are not approved.
According to the Wall Street Journal, "scenes from France and the UK this week are confirmation that Europe's political elite haven't sold workers and households on the austerity thing.
"That's dangerous, with financial markets and ratings agencies never blinking when looking for signs of weakening on deficit-reduction programs.
"Governments in the rest of Europe, tempted to lower the steam with a few concessions, need only take a trip to Athens," the Journal warned.
Comparing French benefits to those in the US, the conservative daily said that “US workers would shake their heads in disbelief at retiring at that age with full benefits. But they aren't in Lille or Lyons and haven't paid into a generous system for others that now looks more elusive for them.”
And for the Guardian, "France's pension provisions are more generous than those of most of its neighbours. Trimming them a little might seem to outsiders not unreasonable, given that the pensions burden is steadily becoming less sustainable as the ratio of retirees to people in work worsens."
Date created : 2010-09-08