A French trade union estimated that 2.5 million workers hit the streets Tuesday, protesting plans to raise France's retirement age to 62 from 60. The strike coincided with the presentation of the new bill in parliament.
Hundreds of thousands have skipped work to protest
Tuesday's mass protests against French President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned pension reforms were even larger than similar demonstrations in June.
The strike organizers estimated that 2.5 million people turned out at rallies in major cities across the country, opposing the plans to gradually increase the country's retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018.
The French Interior Ministry, however, disagreed with the CFDT trade union's figures, estimating instead that 1.12 million people had hit the streets. In either case, this represents an increased turnout when compared to the last national pensions protest in June.
"After today it's in the government's hands," the leader of the large CFDT union, Francois Chereque, told RTL radio. "If they want things to get better, they had better come up with proposals [for changes to the reform]."
Retirement, or 'retraite,' has been a divisive political issue for decades
Opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of voters oppose Sarkozy's plan, which the president has described as an "absolute priority," to raise the retirement age by two years and make people work longer for their state pensions. However, two-thirds of French voters also believe that the protests will not make any difference.
"If we don't get a hearing, there will be further steps to this mobilization," the head of the major CGT trade union, Bernard Thibault, warned on Europe 1 radio. "Nothing has been ruled out."
Exploitation, or expediency?
Sarkozy's center-right UMP party, however, says that the planned pension reform is necessary and that it will not back down. The rallies were organized to coincide with the presentation of the new bill in parliament. Initial discussions on the proposal, which is slated to be introduced in October, began on Tuesday afternoon.
At around 34 percent, Sarkozy's approval ratings have hit an all time low
The government argues that the bill is crucial to help reduce France's public deficit, which, at eight percent of GDP, is far higher than eurozone targets. By 2030, the UMP says, the increased retirement age would save France 70 billion euros ($90 billion).
"If we don't act then the deficit in the pension system will hit 20 billion euros in 2010, 45 billion in 2020 and probably 70 billion euros in 2030," warned the leader of the UMP in the National Assembly, Jean-Francois Cope, in an interview with the major newspaper Le Figaro,
"All the reports conclude that we're heading into this dead-end, and all the other European countries have faced up to this by raising their legal retirement age to 65, or even to 67 in places like Germany, Scandinavia and Spain."
Even if increased to 62, France's retirement age would remain below the average of around 64 across the OECD's group of wealthy democracies - in a country with one of the world's longest life expectancies.
French workers are some of the most productive in the world on an hour-by-hour basis, and they pay relatively high contributions to social security.
The left-leaning opposition, which lowered the retirement age to 60 under President Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s, accuses Sarkozy of protecting his earlier tax cuts for the rich by making the middle and working classes pay for the pensions shortfall.
Only a skeleton rail service remained operational
Tuesday's strikes hit the French transport sector heavily. The national rail network SNCF announced that 40 percent of all scheduled high-speed TGV trains, and as few as one in four regional trains, were operating as scheduled.
International rail services were also affected, with no trains travelling from France to Spain or Italy.
Also, the French civil aviation authority asked airlines to suspend one-quarter of their flights departing from Paris' two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly.
The strikes also disrupted French schools, the postal service, public radio and television, and were likely to keep most national newspapers off the stands on Wednesday.
Author: Mark Hallam (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Andreas Illmer