Students, workers and retirees marched across France yesterday, waving balloons and flags, in an attempt to pressure conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to drop plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It was the third such day of protests in a month.
Unions attempted a new tactic, holding the protest on a Saturday instead of a weekday to draw families, students and private-sector employees who tend not to show up during the working week. Organisers hoped the youth turnout would convince the government that even people who didn't generally think about old age were worried about the reform.
Nearly 300 demonstrations took place, the CGT union said. Two protests in September each drew about a million people around France, according to the government, although unions gave much higher figures, up to three million.
France says its money-losing pension system will collapse without reform. The government casts the plan as the only responsible course of action and insists that people need to work longer because they are living longer.
French unions, however, see the right to retire at 60 as a firmly entrenched right in a country attached to generous state benefits, and they deny the government's claim that support for their protest movement is waning.
"There are more and more people who are against this injustice and want to send a strong message to the government -- this is the last opportunity to change this draft reform and to make it more fair," said the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque.
Tens of thousands of protesters in Paris marched toward the site of the former Bastille prison, one of the world's most famous revolutionary sites. Parade floats with huge union balloons lined the streets. Several protesters danced on top of a van as protesters chanted a call-and-response: "Retirement! At age 60!"
Pockets of high school and university students were among the demonstrators.
"Young people are sick of seeing social benefits disappear," said Thomas Roller, an 18-year-old high school student who marched in Paris. "France is becoming a country where it's 'every man for himself', and we don't want that."
Nearly a quarter of French youths under 25 are jobless, compared with about 10 per cent of the general population -- another reason for their disgruntlement.
"Mass unemployment for the youth will not be resolved with a postponement of the retirement age," said 20-year-old student Julien Garcia, marching in the central city of Lyon.
The two other protests in September were accompanied by broad strikes that hobbled train and commuter traffic, unlike yesterday, when there were few disruptions to public services. Dockers have been blocking the port in the southern city of Marseille, however, and 39 ships carrying oil, chemicals and other products were out to sea, awaiting entry.
Conservative French lawmakers have already pushed the pension reform through its first legislative hurdle as the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, has adopted the bill.
The Senate takes the measure up on Tuesday, and protesters are planning to gather there as debate gets under way.
The government has expressed willingness to alter some parts of the final language of the bill, but union leaders say their offers aren't enough.
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