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French Brace for More Demonstrations Against Reforms

Protesters in France demonstrate against new retirement plan
Protesters in France demonstrate against new retirement plan

France is bracing for another day of national demonstrations, even though a controversial retirement reform bill is expected to be passed into law. Last week more than a million French took to the streets and strikes continue. The protests about retirement reflect larger concerns about changes in France.

These demonstrators are collecting money in Paris to help support strikers opposed to the government's retirement reform law, which would raise the minimum retirement age two years, to 62.

The reform is widely unpopular. Polls show 70 percent of French oppose it and that many are unhappy with their president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Demonstrator Nathalie Jalowezak says the discontent is not just about one bill. "I think this retirement thing is just one side of the big problem and that we are struggling for another type of society, that is all," he said.

Philippe Bourgalle, with the French research group Association Dialogue says these reforms threaten the French way of life. "The French want reassurance," he says, "it is a kind of insurance. They have always lived with their social system, that includes insurance, social security, health and retirement benefits." he said.

Bourgalle says more than a million people took to the streets to protest the bill last week because they do not feel listened to.

The majority of people today say, "Yes, there must be reforms," he says. "I think the idea of reforms has won, but unfortunately, the ones that are being implemented do not appear to have been negotiated with social partners and therefore appear unfair." Bourgalle says this is the overarching feeling of the people.

But even as the bill moves towards becoming a law, oil workers remain on strike at French refineries, and demonstrators are blockading oil depots and ports to prolong a fuel shortage that has become a key part of their protest.

Perhaps of most concern to the government, have been the student demonstrations. They shut down universities and high schools last week, although planned protests this week had low turnouts - possibly because of school vacations.

Francois Miquet-Marty is with the French polling company Via Voice. He says French youth have several concerns. The young are in political disagreement with Sarkozy, he says, they are worried because the economic and social context makes them more vulnerable. And it is difficult to find work in the years to come, and they feel they have not been sufficiently heard, he says.

French Communist Party spokesman Patrice Bessac says the unions are calling for more protests, whether the bill is law or not. "The law may have passed, but not the movement," he said.

He says the demonstrations will continue until the French president takes action. "Mr. Sarkozy has just one choice to take back his law and to hear the majority of the French people who demonstrate against this law, so Mr. Sarkozy, hear your people, hear the French people, they do not want your law, you have to take back," he said.

Mr. Sarkozy has said this reform is necessary to help alleviate France's budget deficit and he has taken a hard line on the reform. Analysts say it is a risky political strategy for a president whose approval ratings are at an all-time low.