Europe

French pension reform bill cleared by lower house

France's lower house of parliament has passed a controversial reform bill which will raise the minimum pension age from 60 to 62 by 2018.

It passed with 329 votes to 233 in the National Assembly in a stormy session and will now go before the Senate.

The government says the bill is needed to address France's deficit, but it has been fiercely opposed by the left.

Thousands have protested against the bill and union leaders have threatened to stage open-ended strikes.

Socialist members of parliament had attempted to prevent the vote from taking place by prolonging the debate past the cut-off point.

But house speaker Bernard Accoyer interrupted the process to allow the vote to proceed, prompting calls for his resignation from the Socialists.

Jean-Francois Cope, leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party in the lower house, said the bill was highly important and most French people believe it is necessary.

"[They] know there is no other solution than to pass this courageous reform - begun in all of Europe's big countries - and that we have to do this to revive France," he said.

'Unjust'

The reforms have been a key policy of Mr Sarkozy, who says they are needed to cope with an ageing population and the country's budget deficit.

Under current rules, both men and women in France can retire at 60, providing they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years - although they are not entitled to a full pension until they are 65.

If passed, the reforms will raise the retirement age to 62 by 2018, the pension age to 67, and will increase the social security contribution requirement by a year.

The government says this will save the country 70bn euros (£58bn).

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the leader of the Socialists in the Assembly, said his party also believed reform was "indispensable".

"But unlike you, we do not accept that the weight and the price of the crisis is borne by its victims," he told the government.

The UMP has accused the Socialists of blocking the bill without coming up with a viable alternative to address the deficit.

As the bill was debated, thousands of people protested outside the parliament building, repeating their threats of nationwide open-ended strike action if it became law.

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Media captionProtesters jostled with police during demonstrations in Paris

"We're here to remind people that unions consider that this reform is unjust and unacceptable," said one protester before the vote took place.

"Even if it's forced through in the National Assembly, for us the battle won't be over. It will only be over once we've obtained the withdrawal of this project, which is profoundly unjust."

Last week, more than a million workers took to the streets to protest against the proposals, forcing a debate on 700 amendments.

The government made several minor adjustments to the bill - including securing concessions for those in difficult or strenuous jobs - but Mr Sarkozy has insisted he will press ahead with the reforms.

The BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris says there is huge support for the unions' stance, but many in France see the reforms as inevitable.

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