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French unions and police at odds over protester numbers

Police estimate that some 825,000 people took to the streets in cities across France on Saturday, well below the unions' figure of 3 million, in France's fifth day of strikes against pension reforms.


Hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the latest protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's flagship pension reform.

Government estimates put the total number of protesters at around 850,000, while unions said between 2.5 million and 3 million had taken to the streets.

The French president is determined to stand firm on his plans to raise the retirement age, but unions have staged weeks of nationwide demonstrations to try to force him to back down. Five-day-old rail and refinery strikes are piling pressure on the government by disrupting travel.

Public and private sector employees and students marched in dozens of cities, with the biggest crowd assembling in Paris. The mood was upbeat, with disco music blaring, horns honking and chants of "All Together."

“The government must back down or things will get ugly, they warn,” said FRANCE 24’s Aurore Dupuis, covering the event in Paris.

France's powerful trade unions were hoping for a similar turnout to their last weekend rally on Oct. 2, which they said drew nearly 3 million people nationwide, though police estimates were lower.

"We have several million people in the street who support us and believe in us," said CFDT union leader François Chérèque, at the main protest in Paris. "The only one blocking the country is the government."

Five straight days of strikes over the unpopular reform have cut train services and grounded flights. Walkouts at oil refineries have hit supply at nearly 2 percent of France's petrol stations. Officials at Roissy Charles de Gaulle, the main Paris airport, say fuel supplies there could run out by Monday evening.

Sarkozy has vowed to push ahead with his pension reform, saying it is the only way to stop a 32-billion-euro ($44.7 billion) annual pension shortfall ballooning to 50 billion by 2020.

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde told French radio RTL that gradually lifting the minimum and full retirement ages by two years, to 62 and 67 respectively, would be less painful than raising pension contributions or trimming retirement benefits for the 15 million people in France currently receiving them. 

Police alert for scuffles

Both the government and unions will be looking closely at Saturday's turnout. Unions said nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday drew 3.5 million protesters. The Interior Ministry put the figure at 1.23 million.

The government's main concern is youth protesters becoming rowdy. Riot police used tear gas on Friday to disperse crowds in the city of Lyon. Dozens of students were arrested across the country and several police officers were injured.

Police in Paris have orders to not use rubber bullets, after a youth protester was injured by one during the week.

Rail services were reduced on Saturday, but flights out of Paris's Orly airport were back to normal following disruption on Friday from a strike by runway workers.

France has a tradition of overpowering unpopular government proposals through street protests and industrial action, though polls suggest people are coming to terms with the fact that delaying retirement, in line with other European countries, is becoming inevitable.

The French parliament has approved the pension bill's key points and the Senate will vote on the legislation on Wednesday. Unions plan to meet on Thursday to discuss further action.

"The momentum is still there, whether the reform is approved or not," Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the more radical Force Ouvrière (FO) union, told French television.

Strikes during the week at French oil ports and refineries put pressure on fuel supplies and cut the flow at a pipeline running into Paris and international airports.

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