TOPICS > Economy

In France, Labor Protests Turn ‘More Radical’

October 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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French senators plan to move forward with a vote to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62, despite growing protests over the measure. Jim Lehrer speaks with GlobalPost correspondent Mildrade Cherfils for more on the protests' escalating violence.
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JIM LEHRER: For more, we go to Mildrade Cherfils. She’s a correspondent for the international Web site GlobalPost. I talked with her earlier this evening from Paris.

Mildrade Cherfils, welcome.

MILDRADE CHERFILS, GlobalPost: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Explain to us first, just why has a seemingly small change in the retirement age triggered such a response?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Well, essentially, Jim, the French are very tied to their social benefits. And this reform is seen as a chipping-away of rights that they have fought for, that they feel that they have earned over years.

And it feels like it’s the beginning of the end of something for them. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s causing so much tension between the government and the unions.

JIM LEHRER: And there are a lot of young people involved in this, too, as well. What is their — what is their complaint about this?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: They feel that they have something at stake in this reform as well, because a lot of them are worried about jobs. A lot of them are worried about having to work longer to contribute into the pension system that they may or may not even benefit from in the future, because who is to say whether or not there will still be a pension system by the time they retire?

And so they’re worried two-fold. Their worries are two-fold on this, and even not being able to find jobs to begin with, or starting later, because they’re having to do — to stay in school for a lot longer to get better-paying jobs, and then, on the other end, not even being able to benefit from all this work that they have done.

JIM LEHRER: So, the retirement age issue is just part of a bigger, bigger complaint and unrest, correct?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Exactly. It needs to be said that President Sarkozy is facing reelection in 2012, and so there’s a lot that’s been — a lot of changes the government has been trying to implement. There’s been a lot of backlash against a lot of security measures, a lot of other reforms, and cuts in services, cuts in police, cuts in health, in hospital staff, et cetera.

And so people just kind of feel like they have had enough, and this reform is very symbolic of that, of that frustration that they feel that the government is trying to take something away from them.

JIM LEHRER: How representative of the total population are these protesters and their protests? I mean, is this a small group of people from a perspective of the total French population who is upset and taking to the streets, or is it representative of a larger picture?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Well, I mean, it should be noted that there are 64 million French people, and taking to the streets, the numbers vary depending on who is doing the counting. The unions will put the numbers at 3.5 million in the streets, whereas the police will put the numbers at 1.1 million or 1.2 million in the streets, for instance, this latest protest that happened today.

And so it’s very difficult to gauge on just numbers alone.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MILDRADE CHERFILS: But the majority of French people do understand that the retirement age has to — has to be — has to change. It has to go from 60 to 62.

But, at the same time, the unions have to save face. But that said, French people are very tied to their right to strike, which they will take to the streets for various reasons, which I think a lot of other countries are probably envious of that kind of not backing down from the government.

And so it’s their right. They have earned it. They use it, the right to strike, that is. And so they will take to the street. And this is what this is proving. This is what this protest is proving.

JIM LEHRER: What about the violence? It began very peacefully. Now there are these reports of violence. The — what — what’s behind that?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: I think, in various social situations that I have seen here, movements that I have seen here, it seems to be sometimes that there are just some troublemakers who are in the crowd, and they come to essentially start trouble, so that — either to incite the police to act in a heavy-handed way, or the other way around.

I mean, there are people who have suggested that maybe it’s even the police themselves who are unidentified police officers in the crowd inciting people to kind of cause chaos and trouble, so that, on both sides, the — the strikes can be seen as something negative to keep people away or what have you.

But, that said, I mean, there was a lot of violence today. Especially, there are a lot of young people involved now. A lot of high schoolers are taking time off from school to participate in the protests. And a school was actually burned down. So it is escalating. And government is recognizing that and has even used the word it’s becoming more radical. So..

JIM LEHRER: Now — yes. Is there an endgame here? I mean, do you think that this protest could lead to some kind of reversal in the Parliament of the retirement age thing? Or what do you see happening as a result of all of this?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Well, it’s clear that both — it’s at an impasse. Both sides are saying they’re not backing down.

The — and both sides have a lot of face to save, quite frankly. The president has said repeatedly and his ministers and everyone who is backing him have rep

eatedly said this has to happen. And I think, fundamentally, people understand that it does have to happen, but the unions have to — they have to fight. They have to fight the good fight, if you will.

And so what they’re trying to do is to — is to restart the discussion, is to get them — to get both sides back to the — to the table. But the vote is expected this week. It’s already passed the Lower House of Parliament, the National Assembly. And it’s expected to pass the Senate.

I mean, they’re putting in long hours debating it. And, hopefully, by the end of the week, we will have a definitive answer as to whether — what they have come up with. But both sides don’t seem to be backing down. So, it remains to be seen how it’s going to end.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Mildrade Cherfils, thank you very much.

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Thank you.