Reporting from Paris — More than 1 million people went on strike and into the streets of France on Tuesday to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to raise the legal retirement age.
It's all but French tradition to launch the new school year with a festive protest, slowing trains and forcing newly reopened classrooms to close their doors for lack of teachers. But Tuesday's strike, deemed a success by unions, was seen as a serious attempt to curtail Sarkozy's major proposal to bump the retirement age from 60 to 62.
The protests also came after a summer of heated controversy over the deportation of Roma migrants and scandalous allegations involving the government.
As a result, the president is widely perceived as being in a weaker position to win reelection in 2012. And the strike, which the Interior Ministry said drew 1.1 million people but unions tallied at as many as 3 million, became a timely platform for anti-Sarkozy sentiment, put on full display.
Protest signs linked the president to the wealthy elite and referred to suspicions that Labor Minister Eric Woerth helped one of France's richest women evade taxes. Woerth is also in charge of winning passage of the pension reform bill, now up for debate.
"Today the government is weakened by the Roma and Woerth issue, so it's the occasion to blow on the embers and make them [officials] bend. We have to seize the opportunity," said Sabine Castets, 25, a teacher on strike.
"This protest is not just about retirement, it's about all these mix-ups with the rich. We call it bling-bling," said Annie Munier, 49.
Polls show the majority of French believe some modification is needed to fund their retirement, but most do not appear to like the current amendment, which also would increase the length of time people must work before they can receive a full pension.
Sarkozy has remained firm on his vow to reform pensions in order to reduce a deficit worsened by the global economic crisis and an aging population.
"What is at stake with this reform is the future of the whole pension system," said Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party in the National Assembly. "If we don't do anything, the deficit will be 20 billion euros in 2010, 45 [billion] in 2020," he told the daily Le Figaro. (At the current exchange rate, that's about $25 billion in 2010 and $57 billion in 2020.)
His argument did not convince Tuesday's protesters.
"France found millions to bail out banks, so the money is there," said Melinda Sauger, 29, a middle school teacher. "We pay a lot for our social security benefits. It's our money that we earned, so we should be able to pay for our retirements with that."
French workers in general have more time off and end their careers earlier than the average European, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
"We must seem like aliens to a lot of people because we have a lot of social benefits," Castets, who teaches middle and high school, said as rock music and French ballads played across the packed Place de la Republique in Paris and grilled meat and mojitos were selling cheap.
"A lot of countries envy us because of our quality of life," she said, "which we have thanks to these kinds of benefits."
Lauter is a special correspondent.