Violence adds to French pension protest headaches

Oct. 19, 2010

PARIS — Striking public sector workers disrupted travel across France on Tuesday and troublemakers piggybacked on protest marches to burn cars as opponents of the government’s pension reform made a last-ditch bid to stop it.

Refinery workers, airport staff, train drivers, teachers, postal workers and armoured truck drivers who supply cash machines went on strike and students set off rowdy protests in a day of protests against a plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.

President Nicolas Sarkozy appealed to demonstrators to show restraint as protesters in the southern city of Lyon torched cars and litter bins, used cafe chairs to smash shop and bank windows, and looted shops.

Police used tear gas to break up protesters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, and cars were burnt or overturned in the suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, French media reported.

This week will be critical for Mr. Sarkozy’s flagship reform, which the centre-right government says is vital to curb a gaping pension deficit.

A majority of French resent the plan to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, and unions want a say in discussing a pension overhaul.

“I want to live my retirement,” reads a poster distributed by the CGT union.

But most analysts expect the legislation will pass within days and the protests will fizzle out. The unions, which defeated pension and labour reforms with strikes in 1995 and 2006, say they will press on regardless.

“The street has power and it can be more powerful than the government,” Olivier Besancenot, prominent Trotskyist leader of the New Anticapitalist Party, said on Radio Monte Carlo.

Petrol and diesel shortages hurt motorists as refinery strikes went into an eighth day, although Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament that fuel distribution should be back to normal within four or five days after measures to unblock supplies.

But the street scuffles, coming on the back of sporadic violence on Monday, were the main worry for authorities.

“I appeal to the responsibility of all those involved to make sure things don’t breach certain limits,” Mr. Sarkozy said in the northern seaside resort of Deauville, where he was meeting his German and Russian counterparts for talks.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie promised to crack down on vandalism in the protests, telling Europe 1 radio: “The right to demonstrate does not mean the right to smash things up.”

Troublemakers burned cars and barricades near Paris on Monday and fire gutted a high school in Le Mans, in western France, overnight.

On Tuesday, some 300 high school students barricaded Paris’s central Place de la Republique and Bastille squares.

Radio stations reported clashes outside a school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where police charged hooded youths throwing stones at them and dispersed the group with tear gas.

Roughly half of French train services were cut and 30-50 percent of flights were grounded, but the Paris metro and Eurostar services were running normally.

Total said a quarter of its 4,000 service stations in France were suffering shortages — the result of a week-long strikes at refineries, fuel depot blockades and an unrelated oil port strike.

Hundreds of other stations were also hit, though a spokesman for Exxon Mobil Corp said deliveries from France’s three months’ worth of strategic stocks were refilling some pumps.

“I filled up for the week on Friday but my colleague is out of fuel, he can’t work, he doesn’t know what to do,” said Marques Vasco, 52, delivering a truck of beer to a Paris cafe.

Tuesday is the sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests against pension reform since June, and a last-ditch challenge to Sarkozy before a final Senate vote this week on the bill.

Political analysts say Mr. Sarkozy is betting the storm over his reform plan will blow itself out and he will be able to change the agenda with an early government reshuffle and a burst of high-profile international activity.

“The public remain opposed to the pension reforms, but have no great love for the strikes either, and they may get sick of the latter before they push too hard for changes to the former,” said Control Risks’ Western Europe analyst David Lea.

“Rather than a tinderbox, this seems to me more like an asbestos tinderbox — something that seems about to catch fire for ages, without ever actually doing so.”

Mr. Sarkozy hopes the Senate will approve his bill by Friday, after which it needs a last vote by a parliamentary committee.

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