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France in turmoil as nationwide strike over pension reform stretches on

Hundreds of thousands of French workers and students walked out on strike in the latest round of pension protests.

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 11:13 PM

PARIS - Unions vowed that their striking workers would keep disrupting rail and road transportation. Teenagers marched through the streets and pledged to go on boycotting their schools. The government, trying to appear unfazed, urged Parliament to ignore the chaos and speed up the vote on a bitterly contested pension reform.

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France remained stuck Thursday in what has become a major test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative presidency - the turmoil caused by a nationwide strike and protest movement that has maintained its momentum well into a second month.

Sarkozy's aides predicted the unrest would soon peter out, particularly as a 10-day school break begins this weekend. Given the government's majority in both houses of Parliament, they added, final passage of the reform law is assured early next week, in any case. Nevertheless, the major labor unions scheduled two more nationwide strikes and demonstrations, for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6, voicing the hope that by pressing on with the campaign they could force Sarkozy to pull back the bill and start over.

The immediate dispute was over Sarkozy's decision to raise the retirement age, from 60 to 62, in an effort to balance a social security budget that pushes deeper into the red every year. There was no other choice, Sarkozy and his ministers explained, if the retirement system is to retain adequate resources to serve the country's aging population.

The change would still leave France with one of the world's most generous pension programs and a retirement age well below those of its European neighbors. But union leaders, backed by the opposition Socialist Party and a growing army of student protesters, object that under Sarkozy's reform, low-income workers would sacrifice more than their share. They suggest a capital gains tax would be a better place to look for the additional funds.

The argument also reflects a broader discontent with Sarkozy and his often blunt-edged tactics among union activists and their sympathizers. Not only is the pension reform proposal unfair, they say, it was handed down without adequate consultations with unions and opposition groups.

"End the disdain," demanded one student's banner Thursday.

Most of all, though, protesters have denounced the reform as a first slice by conservatives into a lavishly liberal social protection system that has been in place here since World War II, with health-care provisions, vacation guarantees, working hours and public schools that are the envy of many other countries.

During a visit Thursday to a cookware factory in Bonneval, 60 miles southwest of Paris, Sarkozy portrayed his legislation not as an effort to wreck that system but as a bid to keep the pension fund from eventual bankruptcy. He lashed out at the strikers, who he said refuse to accept reality, singling out in particular the dockers, refinery workers and truck drivers who have disrupted gasoline distribution and led to pump closures.

"They don't have the right to make hostages out of people who are not involved," he told the gathered workers.

In an apparent effort to discredit the protesters, Sarkozy denounced the small numbers of students and other young demonstrators who have vandalized stores, overturned cars and clashed with riot police in Lyon and the Paris suburb of Nanterre. "It is not the vandals who have the final say in a democracy," he declared.

Meanwhile, about 15,000 students marched again through the Left Bank in Paris, decrying the president's refusal to budge. Other student marches were reported in Poitiers, Nantes, Bordeaux, Lille and Montpellier. The Education Ministry said 312 secondary schools out of 4,300 were again disrupted by students trying to prevent their classmates from entering.

"This is nowhere near over," said Victor Grezes, secretary of the National Lycee Union, on the margin of the Paris march.

In another indication that the troubles with French youth were not over - a vexing one for some protesters - Lady Gaga's production company announced the no-niceties pop singer was postponing her Friday and Saturday evening concerts in Paris because there would be no guarantee trucks could get into the stadium with her sound equipment.

Most of the student marches were peaceful, although a few young protesters again threw bricks through windows in Lyon. Police have questioned more than 200 youths since violence erupted in Lyon and several other cities earlier this week.

Only a dozen universities, out of 83, were seriously crippled by the protests, the Education Ministry said.


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