Image: Eric Gilly and his daughters
Claude Paris  /  AP
Union FO, or "Workers' Force," activist Eric Gilly, left, and his daughters Margot, center, and Stephanie, prepare to demonstrate in Marseille, southern France. The protest against a government plan to raise the retirement age to 62 has special meaning for five members of the Gilly clan.
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updated 10/20/2010 5:22:31 PM ET 2010-10-20T21:22:31

Battling for benefits is a tradition in the Gilly family, passed from generation to generation — as it is for families across the country. And that goes some way toward explaining why the protests against plans to raise France's retirement age have shown such determination and ferocity.

For Gilly and many other Frenchmen and women, social benefits such as long vacations, state-subsidized health care and early retirement are more than just luxuries: They're seen as a birthright — an essential part of the identity of today's France.

The protest against a government plan to raise the retirement age to 62 has special meaning for five members of the Eric Gilly clan who are demonstrating in the streets of Marseille.

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"We want to stop working at 60 because it's something our parents, our grandparents and even our great-grandparents fought for," says Gilly, 50, a union representative at Saint-Pierre Cemetery, the largest in this bustling Mediterranean port city.

"And over the years ... you can see that we're losing everything they fought for. And that's unacceptable."

In Marseille, strikes to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned retirement reform have shut down docks, left tons of garbage putrefying on sidewalks and drawn tens of thousands into the streets for each of six protest marches since early September.

Gilly, with huge drums strapped over his shoulders, led the parade for the Workers' Force union Monday. His sister, two daughters and a nephew weren't far behind.

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"Unionism, it's in the skin," Gilly said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. "It's more than a passion. When something is wrong or things aren't right, they have to be changed."

The nation usually watches with care over its citizens, who for decades have used street power to help shape French policy, sometimes pulling the rug from under politicians' feet.

Retirement benefits are coveted, by some, perhaps even more than a higher salary, making the issue particularly sensitive. Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age hits a nerve deep in the French psyche.

"France is showing some of its old cultural reflexes," said Etienne Schweisguth of the Center for European Studies at the Foundation for Political Science. "When there is something we aren't pleased with we must protest."

Newsweek: A glossary of French protest lingo

Trying to undo what the state wants dates back to an anarchist tradition of the 19th century, when unions first led a struggle against capitalism and a refusal to align with political parties, said Schweisguth. One wing of the hard-core CGT union, which is leading many of today's protests, still looks to that tradition.

Despite the anti-government protests, it is the French state that has for centuries been charged with protecting individuals and their rights.

"The state is the guarantor of the moral good," said Schweisguth, who studies changes in attitudes and values in society.

It was in 1982, under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, that the minimum age to stop working was lowered from 65 to 60. The measure, emblematic of the 14-year Mitterrand presidency, was adopted by a special ordinance that bypassed parliament.

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Sixty has since become a golden number — and the battle cry for entire families fearful of losing benefits bestowed on grandparents, parents or colleagues at work. Including the Gillys.

"This is a family affair because unionism is our big family," said Stephanie, 22, who is among Marseille's striking garbage collectors. "Our elders fought for retirement at 60."

"We have all the generations represented," she said. "There's me, my little sister, Dad. There we go. And then there will be our children, too. We will teach them."

Schweisguth said, that despite the ruckus, strikers represent a minority of the population and that, while polls show backing for such actions, they do not measure the fervor of the backing, which he called "flaccid."

Sarkozy, a conservative, has made pushing the legal retirement age back up a priority.

"The French are moaners, sometimes grouches. But at the same time they're lucid, intelligent and responsible," the daily Le Figaro quoted him as saying in May, when he criticized Mitterrand's 1982 decision. "They will be able to acknowledge that there is no alternative to our reforms."

But Sarkozy is increasingly unpopular, and he may be off the mark.

Newsweek: A glossary of French protest lingo

Gilly, a burly man dressed in red from his baseball cap to his Workers' force union bib, pounds the huge drum hanging from his neck at a street protest against the retirement reform, keeping time to the chorus of voices singing "The International," the Communist anthem.

"You're not really going to push up the age of people who retire with this reform," says his nephew, Mathias Gilly, a retailer. "In reality, it's going to mean a smaller pension for people when they do retire."

Gilly packs up his drum for another day, vowing that he and his family will keep up protests — "for as long as it takes."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: French protesters fight against pension reform

  1. Transcript of: French protesters fight against pension reform

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Overseas today, across France , anger and in some cases violence spilling into the streets. Our own Stephanie Gosk is in Paris . She tells us that protesters, most of them young people, were hurling rocks, breaking windows, torching cars, apparently undeterred by police in riot gear depleting tear gas. This was the sixth day of nationwide strikes since early September over a government plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. We'll take a

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