PARIS — Strikes across France delayed flights, closed schools and frustrated commuters Thursday as hundreds of thousands of workers protested government plans to raise the retirement age past 60 — one of the lowest even in Europe.
President Nicolas Sarkozy says retiring so young is now untenable given increasing life spans, but unions see his planned reforms to France's over-stretched pension system as yet another blow to Europe's cherished social model.
His government wants to raise the retirement age to 61 or 62 — reforms that have been under discussion since well before the current European debt crisis. Sarkozy has called them his main priority this year.
Despite Thursday's protests — by nearly 400,000 people, according to the Interior Ministry — France's retirement plans pale before the harsh austerity measures instituted by other European nations, including Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Spain and Italy also have announced recent austerity plans as a debt crisis that started in Greece has weakened the euro and raised questions about the future of currency shared by 16 nations.
Some unions say France's pension budget shortfall could be reduced by raising workers' monthly contributions.
"Even though we need pension reform, extending the retirement age is the most unjust way," the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, said on France-2 television. He criticized "the purely financial logic" of the government's plan and it's "obsession ... with aligning with Germany" on retirement.
Germany recently raised its retirement age from 65 to 67 to offset an aging population. Many EU countries have 65 as the general retirement age, though some allow for earlier departures for women and those in professions considered arduous.
To express their anger, French workers for the government and private companies from Nestle to oil giant Total walked off the job Thursday and planned scores of protests in Paris and other cities and towns.
Striking train drivers reduced commuter traffic around Paris, although international train routes did not appear to be affected. Aviation authorities expected flights at Paris' Charles de Gaulle to be reduced by 10 percent and those at Orly airport by 30 percent because of the strikes.