Pension reform approved in France

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 28, 2010; A8

PARIS - The French Parliament gave final approval to President Nicolas Sarkozy's bitterly contested pension reforms Wednesday as a two-month wave of protests by union activists and high school students sputtered toward an inconclusive end.

The final vote, with the National Assembly formally signing off on a new law already approved by the Senate, sealed a major political victory for Sarkozy's business-oriented government. Swimming against public opinion, the president and his ministers had argued that tighter pension rules are unavoidable in an era of ballooning budget deficits and longer-lived retirees.

"This reform is a rendezvous with responsibility," Labor Minister Eric Woerth declared shortly before the concluding vote.

The main change - and the one that attracted the strongest opposition - pushed back the legal retirement age from 60 to 62. Although that is still one of the lowest retirement thresholds in the world, union activists and their many supporters rejected it as a significant breach in the generous social protection system that the French have enjoyed since World War II.

Their long run of strikes and demonstrations contrasted vividly with the relatively mild reaction in Britain last week when the government announced $131 billion in budget cuts, including big hits on social services. It also dramatized again how deeply French people cherish the guarantees - of health insurance, cheap education, short workweeks - that make for high taxes but are seen here as a heritage as cherished as wine and cheese.

Against that background, Sarkozy's popularity in opinion polls sank below 30 percent during the crisis, one of the lowest ratings since he won election in 2007. He has announced plans to reshuffle his government next month and repair relations with the union movement in an attempt to rekindle support before the next presidential vote in 2012.

Although the strikes and protests appeared to be winding down, union leaders vowed to continue the struggle, suggesting that Sarkozy could still be pressured into withdrawing the law before it is enacted. Plans for two more national strikes and protest marches, one Thursday and one Nov. 6, were maintained despite the possibility of a shrunken turnout.

"A change in the protest mode does not mean giving up on the movement," said Bernard Thibault, head of the General Labor Confederation, in an interview with the Liberation newspaper headlined "It is not over."

Still, the national rail system has already announced that it is operating almost normally, and the main petroleum industry association said that about 80 percent of the country's filling stations are gassing up cars as usual. Both were seen as key to the government's victory, since many French families plan to travel over the long All Saints' Day weekend and would have been furious if the shortages and disruptions of the past 10 days had continued.

The opposition Socialist Party, meanwhile, announced plans to appeal to the Constitutional Council, the country's highest tribunal. From the outset, Socialist leaders have joined union leaders in arguing that Sarkozy's plan is unfair because it seeks a disproportionate share of budget savings from low-salaried workers by postponing their pension rights. A ruling is expected by mid-November.

Martine Aubry, the party's general secretary and a possible candidate against Sarkozy in 2012, has said that if the party recaptures power, it will restore retirement at age 60. But she cautioned that workers would still have to pay longer into the system, in effect making it impossible to retire at 60 with full benefits.

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