Strikes and protests over pension reform disrupt services nationwide
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Transport, schools and hospitals across France are facing severe disruptions in services as unions stage a day of strikes and demonstrations in protest at government plans to reform the pension system and raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
Tuesday’s strike represents a high-stakes showdown between the country’s largest labour unions and President Nicolas Sarkozy over the issue of pension reform. The unions are vehemently opposed to the French government’s proposed reforms that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 over the next eight years. Labour leaders are now counting on a massive turnout at the hundreds of rallies they have planned across the country on Tuesday as a show of strength against the president.
By the early afternoon, the Interior Ministry reported that an estimated 450,000 people around the country had been involved in various marches. This figure does not include the main protest in Paris.
"This is a grave moment," Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT union, one of the two largest in the country, said. "This may be an exceptional day. If it is exceptional, we may be at a turning point." Thibault and his fellow union leaders hope two million people will show up to voice their opposition to the government’s retirement plans. If their predictions are correct, that would make it one of the largest mass protests in recent French history.
Francois Chereque, leader of the large CFDT union, told RTL radio the government would be ill-advised to ignore what he expected to be the "biggest turnout in a decade".
"After today it's in the government's hands, It they want things to get better they'd better come up with proposals (for changes to the reform)," he said.
Two-thirds of French voters support Tuesday’s general strike, according to an IFOP Institute poll released on Sunday. But 53% said they approved plans to raise the retirement age by two years.
Regardless of how many people actually turn out to protest, the strike is expected to cause widespread disruptions across France today, with rail and underground services as well as short-haul Air France flights set to be halved. Many schools across the country will also remain shut, but most private sector companies will not be affected.
A big gamble for all
The strikes were planned to coincide on Tuesday with Labour Minister Eric Woerth’s presentation of the pension reforms to parliament. Woerth, for his part, has been embroiled for months in the ongoing L’Oreal Heiress Scandal that has been among a number of controversies that have dragged down Sarkozy’s approval rating to record lows.
The president has remained undeterred by his low poll numbers and the challenge from the unions, stating repeatedly that he will do what it takes to get the legislation passed. He also has 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.
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 other, 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 new French citizenship from recent immigrants who threaten public officials and police officers.
The Sarkozy administration’s new crackdown on immigrants, including this latest proposal along with the recent deportation of approximately 1,000 Roma, has prompted protests around the country.