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French Cabinet Approves Pension Reform Plan

in Face of Strike Threats

By Emmanuel Geofges-Picot,
San Francisco Chronicle

 

 May 28, 2003

 

Defying the threat of massive strikes, the French Cabinet approved a pension reform package Wednesday that requires people to work more years before retirement.

Transportation, education and other unions have been fighting hard against the proposal, which they say will open the door to an eventual gutting of France's pension system.

The center-right government of President Jacques Chirac insists that reform of the system is needed to save it from financial collapse as French society ages.

The package now moves to parliament, and the government is pushing for approval before the summer recess.

"It was the responsibility of the government to act, and act without delay, to avoid having to take more brutal measures one day," Chirac said, calling the reforms "urgent" and just.

The reform plan would extend by 2008 the span that government employees must work for a full pension from 37.5 years to 40 years. That time would go up to 41 years in 2012 and 41 years, 9 months in 2020.

Private sector employees already have to work 40 years before they are eligible for full pensions.

The government says the steps are needed because the number of retirees is increasing faster than the number of workers who pay into the pension system. Without changes, officials say the system will hit serious trouble in 20 years.

Unions say they don't oppose adjusting the pension system to save it, but they complain changes are being made at their expense and they have planned massive actions against plan.

Following up on strikes that paralyzed transport earlier this month, subway workers announced an "unlimited" strike to start Monday.

Some 300,000 protesters marched against the plan in Paris on Sunday -- the largest demonstration against the year-old government of Chirac's hand-picked prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

A strike against the reform plan by air traffic controllers on Tuesday crippled flights in France, reducing air traffic to about 20 percent of normal.

Teachers have also been on the forefront of the fight. Education unions announced they would go back on strike nationwide next Tuesday to protest the plan, in addition to other government proposals to trim the number of teacher assistants.

Even high culture is not above the fray. The Picasso Museum and the Guimet Museum of Asian Art in Paris were closed Wednesday. The Musee d'Orsay operated with fewer staff members but kept its doors open.

The government has tried to please some unions with concessions over the past few weeks, such as allowing workers who started on the job in their mid-teens to retire earlier.

The education strikes have also drawn fire by threatening France's all-important baccalaureate examinations, which are key to determining students' university and job prospects.

Christian Janet, the president of the Federation of Parents of Public School Students, said that any disruption of the exams would be "inadmissible."

"It's absolutely scandalous. It goes against the very mission of education," he told Europe-1 radio.


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