Strikes across France delayed flights, closed schools and frustrated commuters Thursday as workers protested government plans to raise the retirement age past 60 — one of the lowest even in Europe.
President Nicolas Sarkozy says retiring so young is now untenable given growing life spans, but unions see his planned reforms to France's over-stretched pension system as yet another blow to Europe's cherished social model.
His government wants to raise the retirement age to 61 or 62 — reforms that have been under discussion since well before the current European debt crisis. Sarkozy has called them his main priority this year.
Despite the protests, France's retirement plans pale before the harsh austerity measures instituted by other European nations, including Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Spain and Italy have also announced recent austerity plans as a debt crisis that started in Greece has weakened the euro and raised questions about the future of currency shared by 16 nations.
Some unions say France's pension budget shortfall could be reduced by raising workers' monthly contributions.
"Even though we need pension reform, extending the retirement age is the most unjust way," the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, said on France-2 television. He criticized "the purely financial logic" of the government's plan and it's "obsession ... with aligning with Germany" on retirement.
Germany recently raised its retirement age from 65 to 67 to offset an aging population. Many EU countries have 65 as the general retirement age, though some allow for earlier departures for women and those in professions considered arduous.
To express their anger, French workers for the government and private companies from Nestle to oil giant Total walked off the job Thursday and planned scores of protests in Paris and other cities and towns.
Striking train drivers reduced commuter traffic around Paris, although international train routes did not appear to be affected. Aviation authorities expected flights at Paris' Charles de Gaulle to be reduced by 10 percent and those at Orly airport by 30 percent because of the strikes.
About 14 percent of teachers nationwide were on strike, and about 8 percent of hospital workers.
The French government, which had long danced around the retirement age issue, has been increasingly bold in recent days.
"It is totally logical that the government follow this option, we will push back the legal age" of retirement, Labor Minister Eric Woerth said Wednesday.
France is only slowly emerging from its worst recession in decades, and labor relations are tense after waves of job cuts.
Polls show most French voters think something must be done to keep the pension system from collapsing. For two decades, successive governments have made gradual money saving measures, but ambitious changes have been thwarted by protests.
The government is also considering raising the number of working years required to receive a full pension. Currently 40 years are required for most professions, rising to 41 in 2012, but that could go higher in a new pension reform.
The government will finalize its pension reform proposal in July — the heart of holiday season, when it is hard for unions to organize protests — and submit it to parliament in early September.
French life expectancy in 2007 was 77 for men and 84 for women, several years above the European average, according to U.N. statistics.
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