French marchers and strikers defy Sarkozy

Striking public sector workers disrupted travel across France yesterday and sporadic violence flared at protest marches as opponents of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform made a last-ditch attempt to stop it.

Refinery workers, airport staff, train drivers, teachers, postal workers and guards who supply cash machines went on strike and students set off rowdy protests in a day of action against plans to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.

At least a million protesters demonstrated in cities across France in the biggest and most persistent challenge to economic reforms anywhere in Europe, where governments are struggling to curb budget deficits and reduce debt mountains.

“To hell with the national debt. We’ll give them nothing and we don’t give a damn about their AAA!” read one protest sign, referring to the AAA credit rating the government says could be at risk unless it gets its pension shortfall under control.

The protests have blown up into the biggest test yet for Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings are dismal 18 months before a presidential election which polls show the left would win as things stand today.

The unrest has put him under an uncomfortable spotlight as France prepares to take over the G20 presidency in mid-November.



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