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Violent French Protests Don't Tell Whole Truth

A man holds a placard which reads,'Full pension at 60, I stick to it', during a demonstration against raising the retirement age to 62, in Nanterre, near Paris, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010.
AP Photo
Youths run past an overturned car in a street in Lyon, central France, Thursday Oct. 21, 2010.
AP Photo

The TV pictures of violent French protests against pension reform don't lie exactly - but they do distort the truth.

Most of the workers opposed to the reforms didn't throw rocks, block fuel depots or overturn vehicles.

They marched peacefully, chanting the old slogans of the French Left - a movement which, with most of its members well into middle-age, has grown less radical and a lot more comfortable.

The burning barricades of 1968 are ancient history now. Frankly, many of the marchers this week wouldn't have made 100 yards in a race with riot police.

In fact, the labor organizers of the Paris march on Tuesday were so anxious to avoid a confrontation that they made a deal with the authorities. At the first sign of violence, all the legitimate union members would disperse - leaving the police to arrest the troublemakers.

Of course, there have been pockets of violent protest - but the balaclava-wearing car-burners in the suburb of Nanterre aren't fighting pension reforms. Their anger has several strands: they don't like President Nicholas Sarkozy; they hate his government's center-right wing policies; and they're legitimately frustrated by high unemployment. Some are just bored.

France Benefits Protests Continue as Vote Nears

Down south, more militant union members - from garbage-collectors to refinery workers - continue to strike. Here and there, they block roads and airport access, but their beefs are also more complicated - and conventional. They want salary increases, and job security.

A man holds a placard which reads,'Full pension at 60, I stick to it', during a demonstration against raising the retirement age to 62, in Nanterre, near Paris, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010.
AP Photo

In fact, on the need for pension reform, there is broad agreement across French society ... even at the top of the unions.

The process began more than a decade ago, and the state will take another important step this week when the new law that pushes retirement ahead by two years passes in the French Senate (early retirement will start at 62 instead of 60, and full state benefits will begin at 67, not 65).

But that won't be the end of it. With life expectancy growing (although not as fast as the national debt), France is going to have to come up with a more affordable retirement formula.

Expect to see more negotiation, politicking, marching and old protest songs in the months to come. Not widespread violence.

Some French pension facts:

The retirement age in France on full state benefits is 65. The reforms would push that to 67, which will put France in line with the rest of Europe and even the U.S.

But it's the early retirement provisions - available at age 60 (soon to be 62) that are the most costly and controversial. Technically, anyone taking early retirement only gets partial benefits, based on their employment contributions over the years. However the formula for calculating the benefits - especially for the public sector - is extremely generous.

The proof: only 15 percent of French male employees carry on working between age 60 and 65 (the lowest proportion in Europe). On average, men take their retirement just after their 59th birthday. (In the U.S., the average male retirement age is just over 63. In Japan, it's 66).

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."