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Pension protesters hold firm despite lower turnout


Video by Siobhán SILKE

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2010-10-29

The government has all but won. But protesting workers across France vowed to carry on their struggle against a government they say shut the unions – and them – out of negotiations to change France's pensions system.

It was an overwhelmingly peaceful and good-natured street protest.

Factory workers, students, nurses, civil servants, off-duty policemen and even theatre groups took to the streets in their thousands on Thursday to voice a discontent they hope will come to haunt their increasingly unpopular president and his right-wing UMP party.

The turnout was smaller than the unions had hoped (in Paris, 170,000 according to unions, 31,000 according to police, down by half on the previous protests).

But the number that came out to march and chant beneath a sea of banners in a colourful carnival atmosphere through central Paris was still impressive.

Sarkozy's law in the bag

The law to raise the minimum retirement age in France to 62 (and eligibility to a full pension to 67) was passed this week by both houses of parliament.

It now needs the final sign-off from the Constitutional Court which will examine the text next week.

As far as French President Nicolas Sarkozy is concerned the reform - which he says is vital to balancing the books and reigning in the country’s deficit - is in the bag.

France’s opposition Socialist Party, which had a high visibility at the Paris protest, blames the right-wing government for forcing ordinary workers to contribute to the national pensions system to compensate for its failures in high finance.

Anger that the unions were not consulted

Beneath the carnival atmosphere of painted faces, drinks, food stalls and loud music, marchers at the Paris “manif” (protest) were simmering with anger.

Almost universally, protesters said they were disgusted that the government had rushed through reforms of such fundamental importance too quickly while point-blank refusing to negotiate with the unions.

“This law may be passed, but it has stained our country and our government,” youth worker Michèle Kopf told FRANCE 24. “To ride roughshod over the sentiment of the people and the integrity of the unions is totally contrary to French culture.”

And despite retirement being the dominant issue, many of the protesters in Paris were retired or too old to be affected themselves by the change of law.

Jean-Claude Brunet, 60, told FRANCE 24 he was attending the “manif” to defend his children’s and his grandchildren’s futures.

“We worry for them,” he said. “If people work for longer, there are less jobs for the young. As a baby-boomer I have enjoyed the benefits of France’s social system and we want to make sure we can hand over the same hard won privileges to the younger generation.”

“And we are certainly not here to riot. No one is,” said his wife Francoise, 61. “We need to find a civilised solution to this issue and we want this reform programme to be looked at again.”

“But not simply from the point of view of what our political and business leaders want. We need a debate that takes into account the interests of everyone in the country, from the bottom up - something that has simply not happened this time,” she added.

A peaceful protest

There was none of the violence that had blighted a few previous protests, handing the government a huge PR coup in the run-up to the bill’s final signing into law.

The protesters were conscious of this. And for an occasion fuelled by anger at the government, the carnival atmosphere and mood of solidarity was remarkable.

Despite the lower numbers (blamed by many on the half-term school holidays) the protesters are determined to return in force for the next big demo on November 6.

“Social democracy in France is in peril,” CFTC union representative Bernard Fontayne told FRANCE 24. “Sarkozy is destroying the Gaullist tradition of social rights, where unions are accepted as part of the negotiating process.

“Our president has declared war on the unions and we will fight him to the end. He will not be forgiven by France in the 2012 presidential elections.”

Nationwide strikes

The day of protests saw half of domestic flights cancelled at Paris' second airport Orly, and authorities predicted that a third would be cancelled at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Rail services were also slightly affected, with only six regional expresses and eight TGV high-speed links to Paris in 10 working while the Paris metro was operating normally.

Fuel supplies, which until last week were reduced because of blockades, were returning to normal, although one in five filling stations is still out of fuel and half of France's refineries are still on strike.



Date created : 2010-10-28


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