PARIS — Masked youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, long lines formed at gas stations and train service in many regions was cut in half.
President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to crack down on “troublemakers” and guarantee public order, raising the possibility of more confrontations with young rioters after a week of disruptive but largely nonviolent demonstrations.
Sarkozy also vowed to ensure that fuel was available to everyone. Some 4,000 gas stations were out of gas Tuesday afternoon, the environment minister said. The prime minister said oil companies agreed to pool gasoline stocks to try to get the dry gas stations filled again.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said, “The government will continue to dislodge protesters blocking the fuel depots. … No one has the right to take hostage an entire country, its economy and its jobs.”
The protesters are trying to prevent the French parliament from approving a bill that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 to help prevent the pension system from going bankrupt. Many workers feel the change would be a dangerous step in eroding France’s social benefits — which include long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidized health care system — in favour of “American-style capitalism.”
Sarkozy’s conservative government points out that 62 is among the lowest retirement ages in the world, the French are living much longer than they used to and the pension system is losing money. The workers say the government could find pension savings elsewhere, such as by raising contributions from employers.
In Paris, huge crowds marched toward the gilded-domed Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. Police estimated the crowd at 60,000, down from 65,000 at a similar march last week. Riot police wielding plastic shields surrounded the massive Place des Invalides.
“It’s important to come out because France wouldn’t be what it is today if the generations that came before us hadn’t taken to the streets,” said Lidwine Mure, a 32-year-old teacher who has attended all six Paris protests since September. Her dark clothes were a collage of pro-strike stickers.
At a high school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, a few hundred youths started throwing stones from a bridge at nearly as many police, who responded with tear gas and barricaded the area. 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. Another AP photographer was hit in the face by an empty glass bottle in Lyon, where rioters smashed several store windows.
The violence recalled student protests in 2006 that forced the government to abandon a law making it easier for employers to hire and fire young people. Those protests started peacefully but degenerated into violence, with troublemakers smashing store windows and setting cars and garbage cans ablaze.
The spectre of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing projects nationwide with large, disenfranchised immigrant populations was also present.
At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris on Tuesday, young people pelted riot police with projectiles, while youth in the central city of Lyon torched garbage cans and cars as police riposted with clouds of tear gas.
Sarkozy called the reform his “duty” as head of state. 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.
Up to half of flights Tuesday out of Paris’ Orly airport were scrapped, and 30 per cent of flights out of other French airports, including the country’s largest, Charles de Gaulle, serving Paris, were cancelled, the DGAC civil aviation authority said.
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 Wednesday.
At the airport in the Atlantic city of Bordeaux, scores of protesters blocked the entrance for several hours Tuesday morning.
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.
“There are people who want to work, the immense majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline,” Sarkozy said.
Police in the northwestern town of Grand-Quevilly intervened Tuesday 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.
Students entered the fray last week, blockading high schools around the country and staging protests.
Across the country, 379 high schools were blocked or disrupted Tuesday to varying degrees, the Education Ministry said. It was the highest figure so far in the student movement against the retirement reform. Student movements have forced previous governments to back off planned reforms in the past, and student leaders hope these protests will prove as successful.
The head of the UNEF student union, Jean-Baptiste Prevost, said the 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.
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.
The SNCF railway operator said only about half the regularly scheduled high-speed TGV trains linking Paris to regional French cities were operating Tuesday, while fast trains between regions were slashed by 75 per cent. The Eurostar, which links Paris to London via the British Channel tunnel, is unaffected.
In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, strikes by garbage collectors have left heaps of trash piled along city sidewalks. But still, the piles of rotting garbage don’t appear to have diminished labour 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.
The pension measure is expected to pass a vote in the Senate this week.
Student leaders have called for a demonstration in front of the Senate on Wednesday and another round of strikes at high schools and universities on Thursday.
Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard, Angela Charlton and APTN cameraman Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.