France nears boiling-point as three million take to streets
FRANCE'S President Nicolas Sarkozy could face the greatest challenge of his presidency in the next few days as a month-old protest against pension reform swells toward outright confrontation.
More than three million demonstrators marched yesterday against the president's plans to raise the standard retirement age from 60 to 62. Tens of thousands of students joined the marches, threatening to radicalise the protests against a deeply unpopular presidency.
Militant union branches in the railway and oil-refining industries were pushing last night for a showdown with Mr Sarkozy, who has made reform of the loss-making state pension system the make-or-break issue of his final 20 months in office.
After a series of 24-hour strikes in the past six weeks, militant workers were expected to vote last night and this morning for the kind of open-ended stoppages that have overturned previous attempts to reform the French social system.
It remains to be seen, however, how much support strikes would receive. Moderate, national union leaders fear that extended railway, Metro or oil refinery strikes could fizzle out or alienate public opinion.
Rail and air services were severely disrupted yesterday. Even the Eiffel Tower closed.
Mr Sarkozy has staked his reputation as a reforming president on the pension issue and will not easily back down. He says that pension change is unavoidable -- and a test case for France's willingness to rescue its "social model".
The state pensions budget is already €32bn in deficit. With people living longer and fewer young people in the workforce, the annual losses will more than double in the next 20 years.
The young marchers made it clear that they were "sick" with Mr Sarkozy's presidency -- especially his campaign against Roma immigrants.
Some trade union leaders and politicians say that Mr Sarkozy will be delighted to face prolonged protests. They say that he wants to go into the next election as the man who forced through social reforms. (© Independent News Service)