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French Protest Planned Changes to Pension System


 February 2, 2003  

PARIS, Feb. 1 (Agence France-Presse) — Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets today throughout France in a day of nationwide protest against the government's plans to shake up the public pensions system.

Large-scale protests took place across the country, as demonstrators displayed slogans urging the government to keep the retirement age at 60 and not to lower the size of pension payments.

Like several European countries, France is facing a looming pension crisis because of its aging population.

President Jacques Chirac has made far-reaching pension reform a priority for the center-right government this year, and said concrete decisions are required by the summer.

Without a change to the system, France will see the number of people living in retirement overtake those working around 2020.

In Paris, organizers said about 50,000 people braved a heavy snow and icy roads to take part in a protest march from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation, led by the leaders of the seven unions who had supported the protests.

"Let's act for the future of pensions," proclaimed the banner at the head of the procession.

Large protests against planned reform took place in the southwestern cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux, where about 9,000 and 13,000 people, respectively, took part in demonstrations, the police said.

The protests extended as far as La Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, where about 400 people demonstrated against a reduction of pensions benefits in the capital, Saint Denis de La Réunion.

Commuters in Paris also suffered from the protests as the city's Métro lines were severely disrupted by walkouts while one suburban railway line was closed, transport authorities said.

Unions said the primary aim of the protests was to force the government into accepting them as real negotiating partners in pension reform, rather than only in an advisory role.

"A real negotiation is necessary," said Bernard Thibault, head of one of France's largest unions, the CGT, in Paris. "The government must take account of the impatience of both retired and active workers. It must take a moment to open its eyes."

According to a poll released today by the newspaper Ouest-France, about 78 percent of people in France want the government to hold a referendum to seek public approval before any pension reforms are adopted.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of those questioned in the poll also said the threshold before a worker could earn a full pension should be 40 years for everyone.

Under the current system, public sector employees need only work for 37.5 years before earning a full pension, compared with 40 years in the private sector.

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