The French government is planning on raising the minimum retirement age of 60, one of Europe's lowest, by two or three years as part of a pension reform plan. But much of France's workforce is prepared to put up a fight.
The union CGT said it would probably call a general strike
Hundreds of thousands of workers in France on Wednesday demonstrated against a government plan to raise the minimum retirement age, which is one of the most generous in Europe.
Numbers of protestors varied widely between police estimates - about 395,000 nation-wide - to claims made by unions - close to 1 million. Marches were reported in Paris, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux and other cities.
"The weak turnout shows the government's approach is the correct one," said government spokesman Luc Chatel. "The government is not indulging in triumphalism, but this mobilization shows the validity of its method, which is one of listening, of dialogue and of determination to put in place fair and balanced reform."
Unions attacked the government's claims and insisted the turnout was well above a day of similar protests in March of last year.
"Only a show of force on the streets can defend the 60-year retirement age and the social achievements that (President) Nicolas Sarkozy is methodically attacking," said Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful union CGT.
A system unsustainable
Sarkozy's government insists the reform is necessary
France, along with many other European countries, is struggling to control rising public deficits in the midst of fierce opposition from labor activists.
French media outlets report that the government's proposal would increase the minimum retirement age to 62 or 63, as well as extend the period of time in which workers must contribute to the state pension fund to 42 years from 40.5 years.
Sarkozy's center-right government says the current retirement age, which the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand dropped to 60 from 65 in 1983, is an unsustainable burden on the state pension system.
The government-appointed Pensions Advisory Council reported last month that under the current system, the state pension fund will likely face a 70-billion euro ($86 billion) funding gap by 2030. That could then increase to more than 100 billion euros by 2050, it reported.
Below the average
Despite the theoretical minimum retirement age, the average retirement age in France is actually 58.7 years for men and 59.5 years for women, compared to an average of 63.5 and 62.3 among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In addition, France has one of the world's longest life-expectancy rates, meaning French workers on average spend a quarter century in retirement.
Editor: Rob Turner