Strikes across France delayed flights, closed schools and frustrated commuters today as workers protested over government plans to raise the retirement age past 60.
President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to raise the age to 61 or 62 – reforms that have been under discussion since well before the current European debt crisis.
Despite the protests, the French retirement changes are minor compared with the harsh austerity measures of other European nations, including Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Spain and Italy have also announced cuts as a debt crisis that started in Greece weakened the euro and raised questions about the future of currency shared by 16 nations.
Some unions say France’s pension budget shortfall could be reduced by raising workers’ monthly contributions.
“Even though we need pension reform, extending the retirement age is the most unjust way,” the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, said.
He criticised “the purely financial logic” of the government’s plan and it’s “obsession ... with aligning with Germany” on retirement.
Germany recently raised its retirement age from 65 to 67 to offset an ageing population.
To express their anger, French government workers and those in private companies from Nestle to oil giant Total walked out today and planned scores of protests in Paris and elsewhere.
Striking train drivers reduced commuter traffic around Paris, although international train routes did not appear to be affected. Flights at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle were expected to be reduced by 10% and those at Orly airport by 30%.
About 14% of teachers nationwide were on strike, and about 8% of hospital workers.
The French government, which had long danced around the retirement age issue, has been increasingly bold in recent days.
“It is totally logical that the government follow this option, we will push back the legal age” of retirement, Labour Minister Eric Woerth said yesterday.
France is only slowly emerging from its worst recession in decades, and industrial relations are tense after waves of job cuts.
Polls show most French voters think something must be done to keep the pension system from collapsing. For two decades, successive governments have made gradual money saving measures, but ambitious changes have been thwarted by protests.
The government is also considering raising the number of working years required to receive a full pension. Currently 40 years are needed for most professions, rising to 41 in 2012, but that could go higher in a new pension reform.
The government will finalise its pension reform proposal in July – the heart of holiday season, when it is hard for unions to organise protests – and submit it to parliament in early September.