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Unions threaten further strikes over pension reform

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-09-08

French unions are considering further protests a day after over a million people took to the streets to protest against government plans to overhaul pensions. A French cabinet meeting is underway to discuss the issue.

The French cabinet meets Wednesday, a day after over a million people took part in demonstrations across France to protest against pension reforms that President Nicolas Sarkozy says he is determined to implement and are necessary.

French unions threaten to continue strikes if the government don't respond to their demands.

The strike was part of a high-stakes showdown between the country’s largest labour unions and Sarkozy's administration over the government's reform proposals, among them a proposal to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 over the next eight years.

The main CFDT union on Tuesday afternoon estimated that 2.5 million people had taken to the streets across France, while the government claimed the figure was nearer 1.12 million.

Opposition Socialist party leader Martine Aubry urged President Nicolas 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 Wedenesday.

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 unions.

Bernard Thibault, leader of the other major trade union confederation, the CGT, 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."

Speaking to the massed crowds in Paris in the afternoon, Francois 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 strike caused widespread disruptions across France, with rail and underground services as well as short-haul Air France flights reduced by half. Many schools across the country were also shut, but most private sector companies were unaffected.

A big gamble for all

French Labour Minister Eric Woerth was due to meet Sarkozy and French Prime Minister François Fillon on Wednesday ahead of the cabinet meeting.

"The president will make a statement (later) in the council of ministers on the proposals we will make on the text of the reform," Woerth told TF1 news. He also added that minor proposals will touch on the issue of those who perform more arduous jobs, such as train drivers.

The strikes were planned to coincide with Labour Minister Eric Woerth’s presentation of proposed pension reforms to parliament 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.

The president 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.

Sarkozy also enjoys the full support of his centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party that shares his determination to reform the country’s ailing pension system.

"A reform as crucial as this takes courage and we've got it," said UMP spokesman Frederic Lefebvre on France 2 television.

In the early afternoon Tuesday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the National Assembly that, “in proposing 62 as the minimum retirement age, the government has made a reasonable choice that is essential to guaranteeing the future funding of French pensions.”
The government also argues that 62 is well below the European average. In Germany, the minimum retirement age is 67.

Sarkozy has earmarked the pension overhaul as the last major social reform of his term in office. He and his allies argue that without reform, France’s pension system will no longer be viable.

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.

Date created : 2010-09-08


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