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Thousands march in continued pensions showdown

media Saturday's demonstration in the central city of Lyon . AFP

Workers and students joined more than 230 rallies across France against the government's  pension reform plans on Saturday. Despite government claims that the protests were running out of steam, unions said the rallies were as big as those on the previous Tuesday.

Estimates on attendance varied greatly, with how the figures are assessed by both police and unions being a subject of much debate during the week. In Paris, 50,000 people joined the march, according to police, 310,000 according to unions. 

Strike posters lined the road from Place de la République to Bastille, some bearing quotations such as “Into the palace of despair, hope does not enter”, attributed to Aeschylus. A 12-foot puppet with a bleeding face also made an appearance - Madame Justice under attack, its creators said.

Students joined in, too. One school student wore a cardboard arrow pointing to her right saying “Aim your flash-ball here”, referring to an incident earlier this week where police injured a student in the eye with a flash-ball during clashes. 

The students said they were backing the older demonstrators but also argued that keeping old people in jobs means keeping young people out of them.

““The retirement system and unemployment are really linked,” said 22-year-old Clémentine. “We are afraid we won’t find a job after our studies, and after that we won’t have a pension in good conditions.”

This argument has been dismissed by some economists, who say that the increased cost of hiring people will put employers off if the pension reforms do not go through.

Most protesters were motivated byh a sense of civic duty rather than self-interest, they said.

 “As for me it’s more an ideological than a generation problem” said Jérome Guion a member of the left-wing Parti de gauche. “Do we want to keep a system of pension repartition or do we want everyone to focus on their own pensions with a capitalisation system?”

This problem concerns everybody, artists, workers, everybody,” artist Pascal Colrat said as he put up posters declaring “Utopia is a reality”.

Saturday is the fifth day of rallies in less than two months. Some public-sector workers have been on strike since Tuesday, causing fuel shortages and transport problems.

Strikes by oil refinery workers have left Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport with only enough fuel to last until Monday, but Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said Saturday France had enough reserves.

Lorry drivers are also joining in this weekend and are threatening to block the roads by driving very slowly - a maneouvre the French call opération escargot (snail-pace operation).

The opposition Socialist party says workers are being made to carry the burden of the failure of the financial sector if they are made to work till they're 62 and the protests have rallied opposition to President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government.

“I’m here on behalf of old people, but also for society, for everyone,” said a 22-year-old Norwegian student.

Despite the increasing strike action, the government claims that the number of demonstrators was lower Saturday than on Tuesday and insists it will put through its whole package by the end of the month.

Reported figures of Saturday's protests: 

  • Toulouse: between 24,000 and 130,000 marched – fewer than the 12 October, but more than 2 October. Among them were 5,000 school students
  • Rennes: 18,500 people according to police, 35,000 according to the CGT – smaller than the 12 but bigger than the 2 October.
  • Perpignan: between 5,700 and 20,000.
  • Tarbes: 20,000 to 30,000
  • Nice: 5,900 to 25,000.
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