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Updated: October 21, 2010 19:00 IST

Clashes, protests in French tensions over pensions

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A demonstrator holds a portrait of France's President Nicolas Sarkozy with a hat with the words
A demonstrator holds a portrait of France's President Nicolas Sarkozy with a hat with the words "Donkey", among French Union workers and students demonstration against raising the retirement age to 62 in Paris, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

Protesters blockaded Marseille’s airport, Lady Gaga canceled concerts in Paris and rioting youths attacked police in Lyon on Thursday ahead of a tense Senate vote on raising the retirement age to 62.

A quarter of the nation’s gas stations were out of fuel despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s orders to force open depots barricaded by striking workers.

Gasoline shortages and violence on the margins of student protests have heightened the standoff between the government and labor unions who see retirement at 60 as a hard—earned right.

New violence broke out in Lyon, as police chased rampaging youths who overturned a car and hurled bottles. Riot officers tried to subdue the violence with tear gas. A gendarme helicopter circled overhead.

“It is not troublemakers who will have the last word in a democracy,” Mr. Sarkozy told local officials in central France, promising to find and punish rioters. He accused strikers of “taking the economy, businesses, daily life hostage.”

While the Senate was nearing the end of a protracted debate on a reform Mr. Sarkozy calls crucial to his presidency, students barricaded high schools and took to the streets nationwide on Thursday afternoon. Hundreds filled the port of Marseille, where dozens of ships waited in the Mediterranean after days of strikes have blocked their access to a key oil terminal.

The Senate vote on the sweeping pension reform is scheduled for Thursday, but the debate could drag on for another day or two. Opposition Socialists proposed more than 1,000 amendments to the pension reform bill approved by the lower house of parliament last month, and the Senators must debate and vote on each one.

The French government, like many heavily indebted governments around Europe, says raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and overhauling the money—losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all.

French unions say the working class is unfairly punished by the pension reform and that the government should find money for the pension system elsewhere. They fear this reform will herald the end of an entire network of welfare benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.

“We cannot stop now,” Jean—Claude Mailly, head of the Workers’ Force union, said on Thursday of the protest movement.

Unions have held several rounds of one—day strikes in recent months, but scattered actions have turned increasingly radical as the bill heads for near—certain approval in the Senate. Leading labour unions are meeting on Thursday to decide what to do next.

Student protests have forced the government to its knees in the past, and in recent days some have degenerated into violence.

Shopping streets stood nearly empty on Thursday in central Lyon. The Bistrot de Lyon didn’t put tables outside as usual out of fear of clashes.

“We’ve seen a reduction of 30—35 percent of business overall, for the last few days with the rioting in town. Lunchtime, nothing is going on, we’ve no one. It’s more than calm,” said restaurant manager Philippe Husser.

In Nanterre, the scene of running street battles between masked and hooded youth and riot police in recent days, the scene Thursday morning was calm, said Mehdi Najar, one of a few dozen red—jacketed mediators organized by the city hall to try to keep the peace.

In Marseille, hundreds of workers blocked all access to the main airport for about three hours early Thursday. Passengers tugged suitcases along blocked roads as they hiked to the terminal, before police came in and the protesters dispersed.

Wildcat protests blocked train lines around Paris on Thursday. Protesters in cars and trucks blocked several highways around the country, from near Calais in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, according to the national road traffic center.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux lashed out at “certain people who take parts of our territory for battlefields.” Speaking on Europe—1 radio on Thursday, Mr. Hortefeux said 1,901 people have been detained since early last week.

Mr. Hortefeux insisted that the country has several weeks of gasoline reserves and that “the trend is toward improvement” in supplies. Still, he said a quarter of France’s gas stations lack fuel.

Kamal Guerfa works, or at least shows up for work, at a gas station in Lyon. But on Thursday, there was nothing to pump.

“We are here, ready to work, there’s no problem with that. The problem is that people come to get gas and there is none. That’s the problem,” he said.

Ms. Laurette Meyer’s heart sank when she saw the empty pumps.

“It is penalizing. We work in the building construction business. We have employees who drive all day long in order to build the houses for our customers and it’s starting to be very difficult,” she said.

Families around the country are on edge over the gasoline shortages because school vacations start on Friday.

Authorities, however, are hoping that the vacations cool off student tempers.

On Thursday morning, students shut down the Turgot High School near the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris after a student union vote. Teens sat in the middle of the street, barring vehicle traffic. Some sang songs and chanted labor slogans while police guarded the area.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris warned Americans “to avoid demonstrations currently taking place in France.” The warning said peaceful demonstrations can escalate into violence, and urges visitors to check with their airlines in case of airport disruptions, and check with rental car agencies about the availability of gasoline.

Workers for Airbus and Hewlett Packard marched through the streets of the southern city of Toulouse, where the city university is closed because of student protests. Ten other universities were also blocked on Thursday.

In Strasburg in the east, protesters blocked a sluice on the Rhine.

The strikes are hitting the entertainment industry, too. Lady Gaga’s website says the singer postponed two Paris concerts scheduled for Friday and Saturday “as there is no certainty the trucks can make it” to the show.

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