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Students rally as unions threaten further pension strikes

Video by Christopher MOORE

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-10-21

French students protested on Thursday against plans to overhaul the pension system. Despite the largely peaceful protests, clashes erupted between youths and police in the French city of Lyon after students threw bottles at police.

French students organised their own protests against the proposed pension reform for the first time Thursday. The students, who previously attended official union protests , fear the pension reform will worsen already high youth unemployment in France.

Several hundred secondary schools across the country and three dozen universities were hit by the strikes.

"The government is trying to ruin all our prospects," said Victor Colombani, 16-year-old students from the elite Henri IV High School and President of the National Union of students (UNL) told FRANCE 24. "Extending the age of retirement means reducing almost a million jobs for young people. We call for a fairer reform that takes into account years of study and periods of forced unemployment for young people," he said.

In the southeastern city of Lyon, clashes between youths and riot police, which began last week on the fringes of anti-pension protests, continued earlier on Thursday. Sarkozy called the clashes "scandalous" and said rioters would be punished.

United unions

Meanwhile French unions threatened to continue strikes until the government withdrew its plans to raise the retirement age. A meeting between the eight main French unions is underway in Paris to discuss their strategy in the coming days.

The organisations have been at the forefront of the largely peaceful campaign, except for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, to prevent the government from unilaterally imposing the new law raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

On Thursday morning Bernard Thibault , leader of the powerful CGT union, called for further days of protests, likely to take place on October 26.

“There is no treason at all to stop,” he told RMC Radio. “There is no other alternative while the government remains intransigent.”

"We need to continue with massive action as soon as next week," he added. "We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets."

The unions are in a position of considerable strength.

Firstly, they have demonstrated an ability to mobilise a huge number of supporters and have the backing of some 70% of the population (according to polls conducted last week).

Furthermore, one important precedent which continues to give the unions heart was the reversal of a 2006 law on work contracts that would have given employers greater flexibility but left new employees with less job security.

But so far the government has refused to budge in the face of union demands.

Sarkozy insists that he will not back down and is determined to push through the controversial law as quickly as possible. And it may not be as easy as in the past weeks to gather demonstrators at this crucial time.

The unions have the problem of the ten-day half term holiday which begins on Friday.
Not only will there be less activists available, but the continued fuel and road blockades will likely not go down well with families embarking on their holidays.

Furthermore, there are real concerns about the impact of the strike on the already fragile French economy. France has only just emerged from recession, and the expense and cost of a strike could not have come at a worse time.

The strikes are beginning to hit tourism and cultural events ahead of half-term holidays beginning this weekend, with some travellers reconsidering holidays.

Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins cancelled a debut tour with his band in Paris and pop diva Lady Gaga also postponed gigs.

Nailing the law to the door

France’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, is busily hammering out the last amendments to the law and should be in a position to vote it in by Friday after the government  asked the upper house's president to accelerate the debate

Once that is done, a cross-parliamentary committee made up of seven MPs and seven senators will be created in order to finalise the text.

This final text will be subject to a further vote in both houses – the National Assembly and the Senate – before the end of the month.

The opposition Socialists, as they are entitled, will undoubtedly demand that the law is examined by the French Constitutional Court before its adoption.

The Constitution Court would have to submit its findings within a month.

Date created : 2010-10-21

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