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French Retirement Shift Stokes Strong Emotions

October 27, 2010 at 6:41 PM EDT
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Mildrade Cherfils of GlobalPost gives details on what's to come after the French Parliament voted in favor of pension reform.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what happens next? For that, we’re joined by Mildrade Cherfils, the Paris-based correspondent for the international news Web site GlobalPost.

And, Mildrade, the unions have announced their intention to continue striking. But have they said what they’re going to do? Are they going to be targeting sectors like trucking and transportation all over again?

MILDRADE CHERFILS, GlobalPost: Exactly. There is an action planned for tomorrow, as well as for November 6, which is a Saturday, which they hope will bring more people out into the streets. The movement is losing some steam.

This week, there were school holidays, and so there were fewer people out protesting, especially the Senate — at the Senate vote this week with the students. But they have said they will go to the — as far as the Constitutional Council, if necessary. And that’s a body that will have to look at whether the law, in and of itself, is constitutional.

RAY SUAREZ: So, in the showdown between the unions, the students, and the French president, has Nicolas Sarkozy been able to declare victory?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Well, it’s a tempered victory, in that it does come at a price. I think people need to keep in mind that the backdrop of all of this tension that’s going on is the 2012 election. And a lot of the signs and a lot of the people that I have been speaking to have said they will make the president pay at the voting booth in 2012. And that’s what the opposition is also looking at, is how they can position themselves to fare better in the presidential election.

RAY SUAREZ: What can you tell us about public sentiment in France, both about the changes and about whether the demonstrators have been doing the right thing?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: People do in general feel that people have a legitimate right to strike.

Seventy-one percent of the population do support the fact that people are striking. But now the sentiment is changing a little bit, where people are feeling that the measures that the demonstrators are taking are taking a toll on people’s personal lives. Not being able to get gas or being able to ride public transportation is causing a toll.

But, that said, 40 percent of the people do think people should go all the way if the government is not listening to them. And the sentiment is that the government has not been listening to what’s been going on in the streets, where people have clearly said they don’t want this reform to pass.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any differences in attitude between older and younger French citizens?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: I think, for the younger people, they’re looking at it in terms of what happened in 2006, where they came out in full force against this first contract law that was passed, and the government did take a step back.

So, they’re — they have this in recent memory. And they’re saying that, if they go out into the street longer, maybe something like — something similar can happen. I think the older people will come to terms with what’s happening.

The law, in and of itself, is going to be progressively implemented. So, by 2018, everything should be set, definite. But, until then, I think people are just going to have to wait and see how it affects them.

But, that said, it is causing some conversation about youth employment and senior employment. If you’re 57 years old, and you are laid off from your job, are you realistically going to be able to find another job and work until you’re 65? And so it’s causing some of these conversations to happen as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Nicolas Sarkozy and some of his ministers have said for a long time that the current French system is — would be insolvent down the road. Has that featured much in the debate, whether or not France can continue the old pension system or not?

MILDRADE CHERFILS: Exactly. I mean, the figures that the president is throwing out — and that’s cited on his Web site, actually — is, by 2020, if the situation is not resolved today, the deficit will be about 45 billion euros, because, as it is now, people who are working contribute for people who are going into retirement.

And because baby boomers, for instance, are retiring in large numbers and there are a lot of people who are unemployed, there’s not a — and there isn’t enough contribution going into the system. And so people understand that it has to change. They’re just concerned about how it’s changing.

For instance, they think banks received a bailout from the government. Why couldn’t the pension system receive a similar bailout? And so I think they’re looking at it in terms of whether or not it’s fair how the government is taking something away from the little guy, but not necessarily from people who are wealthier and what have you.

RAY SUAREZ: Mildrade Cherfils from GlobalPost joined us from Paris. Mildrade, thanks a lot.