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France's special workers fear losing pension perks

France's special workers fear losing pension perks
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President Sarkozy knows full well that he’s attacking some of his country’s most cherished and fiercely-guarded traditions. The President has taken aim at pensions, specifically those of more than a hundred so-called special professions which enjoy lucrative perks.

They include early retirement, with pensions calculated on the final six months’ pay, rather than on average salary over 25 years, as is the norm in the private sector.

Among the special professions, power workers and train drivers, soldiers and MPs. But also, bizarrely, priests, notaires’ clerks and opera singers, all benefitting from what critics denounce as elitism.

But early retirement means lower social security contributions. The SNCF faces a three billion euro black hole in its pension fund. Yet it must find the money for health insurance and pensions for 178,000 workers, 190,000 retirees and their families.

Not surprisingly, the workers are defending their perks. A public sector bus driver can retire at 50 years old, an engineer at 55. They insist it’s fair, and are ready to man the barricades.

Bus company engineer Christophe Tolle says: “It’s not elitist. It’s a reward for my difficult job. No-one should try to change things.

But things are different in the economic real world. Carlos is a private bus driver and has the same qualifications as his public sector collegues. But he’s paid less, and must work longer.

“I’ll be clocking on until I’m 65,” he says. “And there are no guarantees for the future.”

Attempted reforms in 1995 failed spectacularly as a wave of strikes paralysed France. Only now has the government found the political will to try again.