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French go on strike over plan to raise retirement age

By Christina Okello
Associated Press / June 25, 2010

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PARIS — Trains stood still and children played instead of studying as workers around France went on strike yesterday to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Neighboring countries suffered along with Paris commuters, as walkouts by drivers delayed or canceled trains from Italy and Switzerland. Some flights were dropped or delayed.

Boisterous crowds of protesters filled Marseille’s port and wide Paris avenues, as unions staged nearly 200 marches in several cities over a broad change to the money-losing pension system, part of efforts around Europe to cut back on growing public debts.

“Sarkozy, Don’t Touch our Pensions!’’ read one banner at the Paris march, near a cardboard coffin marked: “Here lies Roger. He’s 60, and he died before getting his retirement.’’

The ranks of demonstrators swelled in comparison with a similar protest May 27. The Interior Ministry put the number of protesters around France at 797,000 — double the number in May.

Police say 47,000 people marched in the French capital, while the powerful CGT union put the number at 130,000. They said least 25,000 people marched in Bordeaux and at least 16,000 turned out in Marseille — a figure organizers sneered at as blatantly false.

“It’s a rather strong mobilization,’’ Labor Minister Eric Woerth conceded on RTL radio. “But the reform is ambitious.’’

Prime Minister François Fillon was expected to address the contentious subject of retirement age at a hastily scheduled news conference today.

Demonstrating his concern about the state of public finances, Sarkozy is canceling the annual garden party for Bastille Day on July 14, citing the high cost of the glamorous event, an annual mainstay.

France has one of Europe’s lowest retirement ages, allowing workers to retire at 60 in most sectors. The government says the change to the money-losing pension system is an obligation, given France’s burgeoning deficit and its aging population.

Unions say money for the pension system should come from higher taxes or charges on those who are still working, and see cost-cutting in the pension system as an attack on a hard-fought way of life.

Sebastien Sihr, secretary general of the SNUipp union, called the change “a step backward.’’

“They are refusing to imagine other sources of funding,’’ he told the Associated Press at the Paris march, where a crowd of thousands whistled and cheered, waving red, white, and blue balloons under a hot sun.

Woerth, the labor minister, has said that delaying retirement to age 62 should bring the pension system back into the black in 2018.

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