Q&A: French strikes over pension reform

France's government and trade unions have been locked in a battle over pension reform this autumn, which has threatened on occasion to bring the nation to a standstill.

Here we explain what the strikes are about.

What is at stake?

For President Nicolas Sarkozy, his very credibility and prospects for re-election in 2012. He was elected in 2007 promising to drag the French economy out of the doldrums, and the pension plan he signed into law on 10 November was his flagship reform.

For the unions, the French welfare model. They fear this could be the first step in rolling back hard-won social rights. Opposition politicians also see an opportunity to further damage the president, whose popularity has dived in the past two years.

What are the reforms?

The government's act raises the age at which the French are entitled to retire and receive pensions. By the year 2018, the retirement age will have risen by two years to 62 and the pension age, from 65 to 67. The period over which claimants must pay social security contributions will rise by one year to 41.5 years.

What does the government say?

The centre-right government says that, with an ageing population, it cannot continue to pay people pensions over such a long time frame.

French workers can expect to spend more of their life in retirement than those in any other country, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Officials say the reforms will save 70bn euros (£58bn) and are necessary to curb the deficit in the pensions system, and to maintain the AAA top credit rating that enables France to pay off its debts at low market rates.

Retirement years

What do opponents say?

Unions and opposition politicians cherish the right to retire at 60 that was brought in by socialist President Francois Mitterrand in 1983.

They say the reform puts an unfair burden on workers - particularly women, part-timers and the former unemployed, who may struggle to hit the 41.5 year requirement.

They have made counter-proposals, including calls for taxes on certain bonuses and on the highest incomes to help fund the pension system.

Who has been on strike?

The strikes are being led by public sector unions, which remain very powerful in France.

Among those who have held strikes are airport staff, train drivers, teachers, postal workers, rubbish collectors and armoured truck drivers.

As well as reduced public transport services, the French have also found motorways blocked by lorry drivers on go-slows.

At one stage, strikers also prevented oil deliveries to refineries, cutting the supply to petrol stations.

Students and school pupils joined the movement, with some barricading the entrances to their schools with plastic bins.

The Eiffel Tower also saw strike action by staff.

How much support is there for strikes?

Protest marches on the initial national strike days drew consistently high turnouts. On 12 October, police recorded 1.2 million people marching while union officials estimated the number to be 3.5 million.

But on 6 November, the last national day of action before the bill became law, turnout was down to about a third that seen in mid-October.

An 18 October opinion poll suggested that 71% of people supported the strikers. However, surveys also suggested a majority believed a rise in the pension age was inevitable.

Did the government make concessions?

There were minor concessions and amendments. President Sarkozy said some mothers would be able to receive a full pension even if they had taken years out of work to look after children.

What next?

The unions have called another national day of action for 23 November.

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