French unions hope to bring millions onto streets

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French unions hope Saturday to bring millions onto the streets, shunning strikes for mass protests in their latest salvo against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age.

"The aim is to get the same level (as previous protests) but we will have a new population coming more from families. The government will have to pay close attention," said Francois Chereque of the biggest CFDT union.

Chereque said he expected between two and three million people to take part in the nationwide protests, the first to be held at the weekend after two days of weekday strike action in September that failed to bow the government.

"Those who cannot demonstrate during the week because they're working in small businesses and can't afford to stop will be on the street," Chereque said.

The last day of action on September 23 ended up as an argument over how many people took part: police said numbers were down from the previous September 7 protest at around one million, unions said they were up at three million.

GCT union boss Bernard Thibault said that the media should measure participation by flying over the crowds and filming them.

The CGT said that 229 separate rallies would be held around the country, roughly the same number as were held on September 23.

After those protests, Prime Minister Francois Fillon insisted his government would push on with the controversial plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

"Governing means listening to everyone. Governing means respecting everyone. But governing France also sometimes means being able to say "˜no'," Fillon said.

Sarkozy on Thursday told the French that they would have nothing to worry about concerning their retirements and pensions once the reform measure is passed.

Former socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius called Sarkozy's words "an absolute lie".

"I hope there will be plenty of people" out on Saturday, as "the government's proposed law is completely unfair, and what's more it's inefficient."

Unions have vowed to stage another day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday, October 12.

The pension reform bill has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and will be examined from October 5 by the upper house, where it is expected to pass easily.

Strike action closed France's main commercial ports Friday, hitting freight traffic. Some cruise ships in the Mediterranean were also obliged to change their routes and two terminals were also affected, forcing rationing of diesel in the Mediterranean ports.

"Most commercial ports are closed", the government's transport ministry told AFP.

The strike action would be renewed every weekend until "a timetable for negotiations has been fixed," said the secretary general of the CGT union's ports and docks branch, Tony Hautbois.

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