Sarkozy signs the law: French retire at 62, not 60

Retiring at 62 became law in France on Wednesday, a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government and a defeat for the unions that waged massive strikes and street protests to try to stop the austerity measure.

The law was published Wednesday in the government's official journal, meaning Sarkozy has signed it and it has gone into effect. The constitutional watchdog had approved the plan Tuesday after France's parliament passed it Oct. 27.

The success gives Sarkozy a boost on the international scene as France prepares to take over the leadership of the Group of 20 major economic powers starting Friday.

French union workers and others angry over having to work an extra two years had disrupted train and air travel, caused gasoline shortages and allowed garbage to pile up in the southern city of Marseille. More than a million people had repeatedly taken to the streets in protest.

Sarkozy said in a statement Wednesday that France's pension system had been "saved."

"(I am) fully aware that this is a difficult reform. But I always considered that my duty, and the duty of the government, was to carry it out," he said.

Unions had argued that retirement at 60 was a cornerstone of France's generous social benefit system, but the government said the entire pension system would have been jeopardized without the change because French people are living longer — an average of nearly 85 years for women and 78 for men.

France's Socialist opposition, meanwhile, complained that Sarkozy had not taken complaints about the reform seriously. On France Culture radio, Socialist leader Martine Aubry said Sarkozy "thinks that by keeping his head down and not listening to anybody, he's showing courage."

Sarkozy's approval ratings are hovering around 35 percent, near their lowest levels since he took office in 2007.

He has not yet announced his intention to run in the 2012 presidential election, but with the tricky pension reform behind him, Sarkozy can now try to rebuild his popularity at home by turning to less contested matters.

Like many heavily indebted European governments, France is trying to cut back on spending. The pension reform is the latest successful push by a European government to cut back on government spending despite months of anti-austerity strikes and protests.

The French reform means that the minimum retirement age is now 62 instead of 60. Those who want to claim full pension benefits must now wait until age 67 instead of 65.