- France - Nicolas Sarkozy - strike - unions
Unions hail huge turnout at pensions protest
French unions have staged a huge day of strikes and protests against proposed pension reforms. President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to make a statement on the issue Wednesday before a cabinet meeting.
Transport, schools and hospitals across France experienced severe disruptions on Tuesday as unions staged a day of strikes and demonstrations to protest unpopular pension reforms that President Nicolas Sarkozy says he is determined to implement and are necessary.
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.
In the last mass protest in late June, the police estimated the turnout at 800,000, while unions claimed it was closer to two million.
Tuesday’s strike is 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.
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."
Earlier on Tuesday Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT union, told RTL radio that the government would be ill advised to ignore what he expected to be the "biggest turnout in a decade".
Speaking to the massed crowds in Paris in the afternoon, he 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.”
Two-thirds of French voters support Tuesday’s general strike, according to an IFOP Institute poll released on Sunday. But 53 percent said they approved of plans to raise the retirement age by two years.
The strike has 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
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.
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.
Woerth said he would meet Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon early on Wednesday before a 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.
Other Senate debates
While legislators in the National Assembly focus on pension reform, across town at the Luxembourg Palace, the French senate will consider two separate, yet equally controversial bills.
Senators will examine the ban on the full face veil that was approved by the lower house of parliament earlier this summer.
They are also expected to debate legislation supported by the president that would strip French citizenship from recent immigrants who threaten public officials and police officers.
The Sarkozy administration’s crackdown on immigrants, including this latest proposal as well as the recent “repatriation” of some 1,000 Roma (gypsies), has prompted protests around the country.