French retirement protests turn violent

MASKED youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France yesterday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, long lines formed at petrol 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. More than 1,000 petrol stations are now shuttered nationwide.

The protesters are trying to prevent the 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 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 healthcare 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 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 started marching from the Place d’Italie in the south 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.

At a secondary 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 barricades.

It was not immediately clear if there were injuries or arrests. Youths also knocked an AP photographer off his motorbike and kicked and punched him as they rampaged down a street adjacent to the school.

Another photographer was hit in the face by an empty glass bottle in Lyon, where protests turned violent and 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.

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 yesterday, young people pelted riot police with projectiles, while youth in the central city of Lyon torched rubbish bins and cars as police riposted with clouds of tear gas.

It was the sixth national day of demonstrations over the planned pension reform since early September. Union leaders have vowed to keep up pressure until the government scraps the unpopular plan.

Sarkozy called the reform his “duty” as head of state and said it must go through.

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.

France’s DGAC civil aviation authority said up to half of flights yesterday out of Paris’s Orly airport were scrapped, and 30% of flights out of other French airports, including the country’s largest, Charles de Gaulle, serving Paris, were cancelled.

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.

Strikes by oil refinery workers have sparked fuel shortages that forced at least 1,000 petrol stations to be shuttered. Other stations saw large crowds. 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.


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