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French Protesters Continue Efforts to Halt Pension Reform

October 19, 2010 at 4:49 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Travel across France was disrupted today and sporadic violence flared at protest marches. Opponents of President Sarkozy’s pension reform made a last-ditch attempt to stop it.

John Roberts of Independent Television News reports from Paris.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In the Paris suburb of Nanterre this morning, masked teenagers threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas.

President Sarkozy’s response? That he would deal with troublemakers and continue with what he called his duty to pass pension reform. But, in the center of the capital, a large but good-natured crowd marched against him, rubbish collectors, teachers, lorry drivers all incensed at being told the age of retirement would rise from 60 to 62.

France knows it has to change after the worst economic downturn in decades, but the French also know they have a way of life to protect.

In England, I have to work until 65.

WOMAN: Yes?

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Why — why shouldn’t you in France work until 62?

WOMAN: It’s not because Europe has a system, that we have to have the same system. We are not OK with that.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The French are the French.

WOMAN: France is France.

MAN: People after 50 can’t get any — any job. They can’t get work. And they want to make us believe that people will still have a job until 62. No.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Do you think the president will change his mind?

WOMAN: No, I don’t think — I think, if he changes his mind, he will be politically dead.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The president himself was with the leaders of Russia and Germany.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, French President (through translator): I have reflected deeply before setting the retirement reforms in France in motion. These reforms have been postponed for too long. And that could no longer happen. Why? Because we need to be sure that the pensioners of today and tomorrow know they will receive their pensions.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So, there’s a standoff, with French unions blockading oil refineries and depriving motorists of petrol, in what is for now the biggest challenge to an economic reform program anywhere in Europe.

Up to 50 percent of flights were grounded by fuel shortages today. But, despite the scale of disruption, the betting is that this is the beginning of the end.

In Lyons, cars were torched and shops smashed and looted, and a violent minority is not bowing out without a fight. Yet, France’s Lower House has already voted on the president’s reforms, and the Senate may do the same in a matter of days.