Chaos as French protesters block roads to airports

WORKERS opposed to a higher retirement age blocked roads to airports around France yesterday, leaving passengers in Paris dragging suitcases on foot along an emergency breakdown lane.

Outside the capital, hooded youths smashed store windows amid clouds of tear gas.

Riot police in black body armour forced striking workers away from blocked fuel depots in western France, restoring gasoline to areas where pumps were dry after weeks of protests over the government proposal to change retirement age.

Riot officers in the Paris suburb of Nanterre and the south-eastern city of Lyon sprayed tear gas but appeared unable to stop the violence.

After months of largely peaceful disruptions, some protests erupted into scattered violence this week over the government’s push to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed that his conservative party would pass the reform in a Senate vote expected today.

Many workers feel the change would be a first step in eroding France’s social benefits, which include long holidays, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidised health care system, in favour of “American-style capitalism”.

Sarkozy ordered all fuel depots forcibly reopened and vowed yesterday that he would “carry the retirement reform through to the end”. And despite France’s tolerance for a long tradition of strikes and protest, official patience appeared to be waning after weeks of actions that have snarled traffic, cancelled flights and dwindling gasoline supplies and, fuelled urban violence.

Protesters waving red union flags and reflective vests temporarily blocked the main road leading to one of two terminals at Orly Airport yesterday. The ADP airport authority warned on its website of “serious difficulties expected in access to airports and air traffic.”

The protests tangled traffic to the airport and some passengers walked hundreds of meters along an emergency lane to get there, dragging suitcases. In one terminal, screens showed 10 of 52 flights yesterday afternoon were cancelled.

“It’s Baghdad here,” said Lionel Philippe, who arrived at Orly after much difficulty because of protesters blocking access to the airport – only to find his flight to Biarritz cancelled.

He said he wasn’t interested in the pension reform debate, he just wants to get home. “I’m 28, by the time I retire everything will have changed anyway.”

At Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris, the nation’s biggest, protesters sang the French national anthem before pushing through a police barricade.

“It is like we are on another planet,” said Canadian traveller Olivier Lejour, waiting to take off from Charles de Gaulle. While he said it was “fun” to watch, the protests disrupted his efforts to work in Paris.

The CGT Transport union says protests also shut down the Clermont-Ferrand airport in the south and disrupted airports in Nice and Nantes.

With nearly a third of France’s petrol stations dry, authorities stepped in overnight to force open three fuel depots blocked by striking workers for days, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

There are still more than 3,000 petrol stations empty of fuel, or about a quarter of those nationwide, the environment minister said.

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