UPDATE 2-French pension protest shrinks, unity frays

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

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

* Estimates show sharp falloff in turnout

(Updates after final turnout estimates, adds quote)

By Brian Love and Yves Clarisse

PARIS, Nov 6 (BestGrowthStock) – Trade unions led an eighth round of
street protests across France on Saturday to show their anger at
a rise in the retirement age, but turnout plunged from the peaks
seen before parliament adopted the reform last month.

Unity wavered as the large CFDT union said it was time to
recognise the government would not back down now, but the more
militant CGT vowed to keep fighting.

“We will do everything we can to prevent these new measures
taking effect,” CGT boss Bernard Thibault, who said that 8,500
people had joined his organisation since the protests began in
earnest two months ago, told reporters.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s flagship reform will raise the
minimum and fully pensionable retirement ages by two years, to
62 and 67 respectively. Passed by parliament on Oct. 27, it is
awaiting what is expected to be a hitch-free clearance from the
Constitutional Council before Sarkozy can sign it into law.

At their height last month, the French protests were the
biggest in Europe against austerity measures adopted by many
governments to cut debt and budget deficits in the wake of the
global economic crisis.

But government and union counts showed Saturday’s turnout
was down by about two-thirds from mid-October — at 375,000
versus a peak 1.2 million on the government estimate, and 1.2
million versus a peak 3.5 million according to the unions.

“DICTATORIAL METHODS”

Cynthia Lerenard, a 22-year-old student demonstrating in
Lyon, denounced Sarkozy’s style as much as his reform.

“I’m here against the pension reform but I am also against
the dictatorial methods of all the government reforms. He does
not listen to people,” she said.

Sarkozy has refused to back down despite eight days of mass
protests and strikes since September that at one stage caused
serious fuel shortages, transport disruption and sporadic
violence.

While the change 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. He
swept to power in 2007 on promises of a break with past inertia.

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

But that unity is fraying, with the moderate CFDT signalling
on the eve of Saturday’s marches that the aim of the protests
had changed. “If I said today ‘we’re going to force the
president into retreat’, nobody would believe me. They’d say
‘he’s dreaming’,” CFDT leader Francois Chereque said.

Addressing young people’s fears they will lose job-start
opportunities if older people stay in work longer, Chereque says
he wants employers to open discussions now about ways to boost
employment at both ends of the spectrum.

CGT leader Thibault is under heavier pressure to keep to a
harder line. CGT bosses further down the chain fronted rolling
strikes at oil refineries at the height of the protest movement,
a move he had not overtly sought.
The government says the reform is needed to balance finances
as the number of pensioners surges relative to the number of
working people whose taxes fund their retirement. Unions are due
to meet again on Monday to take stock.

(Additional reporting by Marc Angrand in Paris and Catherine
Lagrange in Lyon, editing by Mark Trevelyan)

UPDATE 2-French pension protest shrinks, unity frays