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French strikes challenge Sarkozy on pension reform

PARIS (Reuters) - Flights and train services were halted, schools were disrupted and a leading newspaper failed to appear on the streets in France on Thursday as workers staged their second 24-hour strike against unpopular pension reforms.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country to march against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. Unions said that up to 3 million had marched while police said the crowds numbered 997,000.

The union figure was slightly larger than at the last demonstrations on September 7. The police figure was slightly lower.

Airlines canceled between 40 and 50 percent of flights and railways reduced intercity services by half.

Reuters TV correspondents saw some scuffles between police and protestors near the Paris headquarters of the French employers’ federation, Medef.

Unions hoped the turnout would oblige the government to back down over the flagship reform of Sarkozy’s five-year term, which would raise the minimum legal retirement age to 62 from 60 and the age at which people can retire on a full pension to 67 from 65.

“If the government doesn’t alter its intransigent position, it will obviously be our duty and responsibility as unions to envisage further initiatives,” said Bernard Thibault, leader of the country’s CGT union.

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A partial strike disrupted programs at the public radio stations France Info and France Inter and the printed version of the afternoon Le Monde newspaper did not appear.

The government says the legislation is essential to erase a growing deficit in the pay-as-you-go pension system, curb rising public debt and preserve France’s AAA credit rating, which enables it to borrow at the lowest financial market rates.


Labour Minister Eric Woerth, in charge of steering the bill through parliament, promised to press on regardless.

“There is a clear deceleration in the protest movement,” he said on France 2 television, adding: “The reform will be voted and it will be applied.”

The unrest mirrors action elsewhere in Europe as indebted governments cut spending, notably Greece and Spain where more protests loom in the next two weeks in response to some of the harshest austerity measures in the euro zone.

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In Greece, about 6,000 protesters marched to parliament late on Thursday beating drums and holding banners which read: “No sacrifice for plutocracy” and “Cheap power for everyone.”

The peaceful demonstration was organized by Communist group PAME against planned increases in power tariffs, heating oil prices and VAT, as the country struggles with its worst economic recession in decades.

French unions and the left-wing opposition say the plans to raise the retirement age to 62 by 2018, raise civil servants’ contributions to private sector levels and make people work longer for a full pension are unjust.

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They will be harshest for those who start work young or do physically grueling jobs, and for women who take career breaks to have children and will have to work till 67 to qualify for full pensions, unions say.

The lower house of parliament approved the bill last week but it still has to go through the Senate, which is due to debate the measure next month. The ruling center-right parties have a majority in the upper house, but some conservative senators have said they will seek to amend the bill.

The unions meet on Friday to decide what to do next, with some such as Force Ouvriere and the radical Sud Rail pressing for rolling strikes, which the larger unions have yet to decide whether they will support.

It remains to be seen whether workers will sacrifice more days’ pay to test a government which appears resolute.

Sarkozy has made the pension reform a central part of his legacy. He is widely expected to seek re-election in 2012. To back down would leave his reform in tatters.

Additional reporting by Gerard Bon, Lucien Libert and Anthony Paone; Editing by Peter Graff/David Stamp