PARIS — Masked youths clashed with police officers and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn.
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President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to crack down on "troublemakers" as clashes between youth and police broadened, saying he would ensure that "public order is guaranteed."
More than 200 protests and one-day strikes by workers in sectors across the French economy were planned around the country over a bill raising the retirement age to 62. Initial estimates from the SNCF national railway operator and the Education Ministry suggested the number of public sector strikers was diminishing after week of disruptions by refinery workers, students and train staff that have snarled traffic, left drivers without gasoline and canceled hundreds of flights.
In many cities, protesters were being joined by young people who appeared to be seizing an opportunity to lash out at police.
At a high school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, closed because of
earlier violence, a few hundred youths started throwing stones from a
bridge at nearly as many police, who responded with tear gas and
barricaded the area. It was not immediately clear if there were injuries
or arrests. Youths also knocked an Associated Press photographer off
his motorbike and kicked and punched him as they rampaged down a street
adjacent to the school.
Nanterre has often seen student protests in past years and the latest
clashes were reminiscent of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing
projects nationwide with large, disenfranchised immigrant populations.
At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, young people pelted riot
police with projectiles and torched garbage cans. Skirmishes between
youths and police broke out in other cities.
It was the sixth national day of demonstrations over the planned pension
reform since early September. Union leaders have vowed to keep up the
pressure until the government scraps the unpopular plan, saying
retirement at 60 is a fundamental social right that past generations
fought hard to achieve.
Sarkozy called the reform his "duty" as a head of state and said it must
go through to save France's generous but money-losing pension system.
The protests in France come as countries across Europe are cutting
spending and raising taxes to bring down record deficits and debts from
the worst recession in 70 years.
The Paris airport authority warned on its website and in signs at the
airports: "Strike on October 19. Serious difficulties expected in access
to airports and air traffic." France's DGAC civil aviation authority
said up to half of flights Tuesday out of Paris' Orly airport would be
scrapped, and 30 percent of flights out of other French airports,
including the country's largest, Charles de Gaulle, serving Paris, would
Most cancellations were on short- and medium-haul domestic and
inter-European flights. The walkout by air traffic controllers was
expected to last one day, with flights expected to return to normal on
Strikes by oil refinery workers have sparked fuel shortages that forced
at least 1,000 gas stations to be shuttered. Other stations saw large
crowds. At an Esso station on the southeast edge of Paris on Tuesday
morning, the line snaked along a city block and some drivers stood with
canisters to stock gasoline in case of shortages.
Sarkozy said such shortages "cannot exist in a democracy."
"There are people who want to work, the immense majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline," he insisted.
Police in the northwestern town of Grand-Quevilly intervened early
Tuesday morning to dislodge protesters blocking a fuel depot, which had
been completely sealed off since Monday morning, local officials there
said. No one was hurt in the operation, the officials said.
Truckers have joined the protest, running so-called "escargot"
operations in which they drive at a snail's pace on highways. On
Tuesday, about 20 truckers blocked an oil depot in Nanterre west of
Paris operated by oil giant Total, turning away fellow truckers coming
to fill up with gasoline. Police stood by but did not intervene.
Students entered the fray last week, blockading high schools around the
country and staging protests that have occasionally degenerated into
clashes with police.
Across the country, 379 high schools were blocked or disrupted Tuesday
to varying degrees — the highest figure so far in the student movement
against the retirement reform, according to the Education Ministry.
The head of the UNEF student union, Jean-Baptiste Prevost, said that students "have no other solution but to continue."
"Every time the government is firm, there are more people in the
street," he told i-tele news channel, predicting a large turnout for
Tuesday's street marches.
With disruptions on the national railway entering their eighth
consecutive day Tuesday, many commuters' patience was beginning to wear
thin. Only about one in two trains were running on some of the Paris
Metro lines, and commuters had to elbow their way onto packed trains.
At Paris' Gare Saint Lazare, which serves the French capital's western
suburbs and the northwestern Normandy and Brittany regions, commuters
waited on crowded platforms for their trains. Only about half of
regularly scheduled trains were running out of the station Tuesday.
Caroline Mesnard, a 29-year-old teacher said she expected her commute to
take about twice as long as usual — as it has since last Tuesday's
start of the open-ended strike on France's trains.
"All I can say is that after eight days, it's beginning to get a bit
tiresome," said Mesnard. "I'm really tired, but there's nothing to be
done but hang on and wait for this to end."
In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, strikes by garbage
collectors have left heaps of rubbish piled along city sidewalks. But
still, the piles of rotting garbage don't appear to have diminished
labor union support in a city that has long had an activist reputation.
"Transport, the rubbish, the nurses, the teachers, the workers, the
white collar, everyone who works, we should all be united. If there is
no transport today, we're not all going to die from it," said
55-year-old resident Francoise Michelle.
Sarkozy has stressed that 62 is among the lowest retirement ages in
Europe, the French are living much longer and the pension system is
The measure is expected to pass a vote in the Senate this week. Slated
to take place on Wednesday, it's been pushed back until later in the
week so lawmakers have the time to examine hundreds of amendments
brought by opposition Socialists and others.