PARIS — French protestors blocked key sites and clashed with police on Thursday as unions called for further “massive” nationwide protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to raise the retirement age.
A female student was hospitalised during the latest scuffles, and one prosecutor voiced concern at the unprecedented numbers of schoolgirls involved in violent protests that Sarkozy slammed as “scandalous.”
With no fuel left in more than a quarter of French petrol pumps, police are playing what unions have described as a game of cat and mouse with protestors at depots and refineries in a bid to prevent the country grinding to a halt.
The head of the powerful CGT union Bernard Thibault said that faced with government “intransigence” there was “no reason to stop these protests” and “we recommend further action from next week.”
“We have to continue with the most massive actions possible,” he told RMC radio. Unions are to meet in the afternoon to decide on holding further mass rallies, possibly on Tuesday, a week after the last protest.
More than a million people took to the streets then, the sixth day of action since September, to protest the unpopular plan to raise minimum retirement from 60 to 62 and full pension payments from 65 to 67.
Workers in key sectors have been on strike for more than a week to protest the reform, which the government says is essential to reduce France’s public deficit. Unions and political opponents say it penalises workers.
Sarkozy called days of unrest in the eastern city of Lyon, including looting, “scandalous” and vowed that “the troublemakers will not have the last word.
“This is not acceptable, they will be arrested, found and punished, in Lyon as elsewhere, without any weakness,” Sarkozy said during a discussion southwest of Paris.
Youths have been fighting running battles with riot police in several cities, and on Thursday a schoolgirl was hospitalised during clashes with police outside a high school in the central city of Poitiers.
A student representative said the injured girl had three ribs broken after being beaten by a police truncheon. Police blamed jostling and denied anyone had been hit.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that more than 1,900 people had been arrested so far — 245 people on Wednesday alone.
Police have arrested children as young as 10 at the demonstrations, some of whom have been tried in juvenile courts.
An 18-year-old schoolgirl was jailed for a month in Lyon for having set fire to containers. The city’s prosecutor Marc Desert noted the unprecedented “proportion of younger and younger girls” among troublemakers at protests.
Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours before being cleared by police, causing tailbacks of several kilometres (miles).
Troops have also been sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where collectors are on strike, while a similar strike in Toulouse intensified on Thursday, with workers blocking access to dumps.
“The situation is unbearable,” said Michel Sappin, central government representative or prefect for Marseille. “There’s a real danger for the population.”
US pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris concerts planned for the weekend “as a result of the logistical difficulties due to the strikes in France,” her website said, “as there is no certainty that the trucks can make it.”
The country’s 12 oil refineries have been closed down, and Hortefeux said that 14 of 219 fuel depots were currently blocked by protestors despite Sarkozy ordering police to keep fuel flowing.
Petrol pump operators appealed to the government to send in riot police, or even the military, to free up depots.
Half of French service stations have major supply problems, said Christian Roux of the petrol suppliers’ association CNPA.
“If the government does what it said, that is send in the CRS (riot police) to unblock the depots and refineries, the problem can be resolved fairly quickly, in a few days,” he said.
“Perhaps (Prime Minister Francois) Fillon should move a bit, even if it means sending in army tanks,” Roux said, warning that small fuel depots could already be running dry.
Three-quarters of express TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, although only half of provincial trains were operating.
The pension law has been passed by the National Assembly and is slowly working its way through the Senate, which could pass it on Friday.