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France steps toward raising retirement age to 62

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The lower house of parliament approves changing the retirement age from 60 to 62
  • The 329-233 vote came after a parliamentary session that included insults on both sides
  • French workers went on strike earlier this month to protest the plan
  • Pension reform could be a defining moment in Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency

Paris, France (CNN) -- France's National Assembly passed a controversial bill to raise the national retirement age Wednesday after a tumultuous legislative session that ran through the night and included insults and name-calling on both sides.

The proposal passed 329 to 233. It still must pass the Senate to become law.

French workers staged a strike earlier this month to protest against raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

And a handful of left-wing lawmakers hurled insults at the president of the National Assembly after the vote Wednesday, following Bernard Accoyer out of the chamber and shouting, "We'll see you in 2012," the year of the next elections.

Pension reform is likely to be a defining moment in Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency.

There have already been repeated national strikes and demonstrations over the reforms and it has unified the opposition like no other previous issue.

Thousands of workers across France staged a one-day strike September 7 to protest the government plans.

More than 200 demonstrations were planned throughout the country to coincide with the walkout.

Workers from both the public and private sectors were on strike, including those in transportation, education, justice, hospitals, media, and banking.

More than a dozen unions and federations called for workers to strike, though not everyone walked off the job. The Ministry of Education, for example, said only 30 percent of its sector was affected.

The strike also led to a reduction in train services.

Sarkozy's planned reforms have angered many in France.

Among them is postal worker Isabelle Alouges, who has delivered mail for 30 years. She had been planning to retire next year when she turns 55, but if the reforms become law, she may have to work until age 60 or beyond in order to earn a full pension.

An official from her union, PTT Sud, says postal workers feel betrayed because they are being made to pay by working longer when the government could fix France's ballooning pension plan deficits by imposing more taxes on the rich.

"My feeling is one of unfairness because there is a bad sharing of national wealth," Nicko Galapides told CNN before the vote in the National Assembly, the lower house of France's parliament. "That's the thing -- unfairness."

One of Sarkozy's top aides said before the strikes that while there is some flexibility on the details, the fundamentals of pension reform must be enacted, since increasing life expectancy increases the financial burden on the pension system.

Complicating things for the government are Sarkozy's poor approval ratings, which over the summer hit the lowest point of his presidency.

"There is a kind of antipathy against Nicolas Sarkozy at the moment," said Guillaume Petit, of the polling agency TNS Sofres. "His approval rating is very low. We have just 30 percent of French opinion trusting him as a president. This is very low for a president."

Last month, polling agencies sent another political wake-up call when surveys for the first time indicated that several French politicians could beat Sarkozy if he runs for re-election in 2012.

CNN's Jim Bittermann and Niki Cook in Paris, France, contributed to this report.