French unions march in protests against pension reform

PARIS (REUTERS) - French unions take to the streets on Tuesday in protest against a reform of the country's indebted pension system, with some disruption in transport expected but no mass upheaval against an overhaul seen as moderate in scope.

The hardline CGT union has called for protests in 180 locations across France, joined by student unions and far-left groups that denounce a reform they say will penalise workers and make youths pay an unfair share of the burden.

But moderate unions did not join the calls, suggesting that reaction to oppose the reform is unlikely to resemble the uproar that former President Nicolas Sarkozy faced three years ago when he hiked the retirement age to 62 to from 60.

Socialist President Francois Hollande has taken a slowly- slowly approach to reform, increasing only slightly the size and duration of pension contributions as he sought a smoother passage through parliament, and less rage in the street.

"Why strike tomorrow?" Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT trade union, told i Tele news television. "Any amendments we are seeking, we can obtain them in parliament."

The draft pension law, to be presented to Cabinet on Sept 18 and sent to parliament shortly thereafter, aims to wipe out an annual deficit that will otherwise hit 20 billion euros (S$33.5 billion)in 2010. Its main effect is to extend the pay-in period for pension contributions to 43 years by 2035 from 41.5 now.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's government submitted a new reform draft to France's top administrative court on Friday adding an amendment that will reduce advantageous conditions for pensioners who have more than three children starting in 2020.

Overall, analysts have criticised the bill as being too timid, while European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn told Le Figaro daily he still wanted to know how it would lighten high labour costs.

"The pension reform must not raise companies' costs or discourage employment," Mr Rehn said.

The SNCF rail company said workers should expect limited service with late trains cancelled on many national lines, inter-city routes and some TGV high-speed links. Cross-border rail to Britain should run normally, however.

As in 2010, when youths had joined marches Sarkozy's reform - later undone by Mr Hollande - the UNEF university student union and even high school students will join marches.