French unions stage last-stand protest on pensions

* Unions stage 8th day of street protests vs pension reform

* Protests seen by many as last stand after adoption of bill

* CGT leader lowers expectations for turnout

By Brian Love

PARIS, Nov 6 (BestGrowthStock) – French union leaders staged another
round of street protests across the country on Saturday to show
that discontent over pension reform lives on despite adoption of
the disputed legislation in parliament.

CGT union leader Bernard Thibault told l’Humanite newspaper
his organisation had signed up 8,500 new members since protests
began two months ago but he lowered his expectations for marches
that put upwards of a million on the street at their peak.

“I can tell you we’re still going to have hundreds of
thousands of people in the road today,” he said.

Another leading union acknowledged even more frankly on the
eve of Saturday’s protests that the mass disruption of recent
months was fizzling out.

“If I said today ‘we’re going to force the president into
retreat’, nobody would believe me,” said Francois Chereque, head
of the CFDT union. “They’d say, ‘he’s dreaming’.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to surrender on the
flagship reform of his presidency despite eight days of mass
protests and strikes that at one stage caused serious fuel
shortages and transport disruption.

The reform, now awaiting what is expected to be a hitch-free
clearance from France’s Constitutional Council before Sarkozy
can sign it into law, will raise minimum and fully pensionable
retirement ages by two years, to 62 and 67 respectively.

While it is opposed by between two-thirds and three-quarters
of French people according to opinion polls, a climbdown would
have left Sarkozy’s presidency in ruins, given that he swept to
power in 2007 on promises of a clean break with past inertia.

His stand triggered an unusually strong show of union unity
for weeks of protests, 24-hour stoppages and rolling strikes at
the railways and oil refineries.

But that unison is now fraying at the edges, with the
moderate CFDT signalling that it is time to move on.

CGT union leader Thibault is under heavier pressure to keep
to a harder line. CGT leaders further down the chain fronted
rolling strikes at oil refineries at the height of the protest
movement, a move not overtly sought by their national leader.

Grey and drizzly conditions risked further dampening turnout
for a Paris march that was scheduled to kick off at around 2.30
pm (1330 GMT) on Saturday.

The reform bill, which seeks to balance finances as the
number of pensioners surges relative to the number of working
people whose taxes fund their retirement, was adopted in
parliament on Oct. 27.

A first post-adoption protest on Oct. 28 drew a national
turnout of 560,000 people, according to the government count, or
about half of the turnout of previous protests.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

French unions stage last-stand protest on pensions