More than a million join protests in latest pension reform push
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French protesters engaged in a sixth day of nationwide demonstrations and continued strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pension reform as the government tapped on emergency reserves to offset a growing fuel shortage.
REUTERS - Striking public sector workers disrupted travel across France on Tuesday and sporadic violence flared at protest marches as opponents of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform made a last-ditch attempt to stop it.
Refinery workers, airport staff, train drivers, teachers, postal workers and guards who supply cash machines went on strike and students set off rowdy protests in a day of action against plans to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.
At least a million protesters demonstrated in cities across France in the biggest and most persistent challenge to economic reforms anywhere in Europe, where governments are struggling to curb budget deficits and reduce debt mountains.
“To hell with the national debt. We’ll give them nothing and we don’t give a damn about their AAA!” read one protest sign, referring to the AAA credit rating the government says could be at risk unless it gets its pension shortfall under control.
The protests have blown up into the biggest test yet for Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings are dismal 18 months before a presidential election which polls show the left would win as things stand today.
The unrest has put him under an uncomfortable spotlight as France prepares to take over the G20 presidency in mid-November.
Speaking in the seaside town of Deauville where he met the leaders of Russia and Germany, Sarkozy appealed for restraint as hooded protesters in the southern city of Lyon torched cars and looted shops after using cafe chairs to smash windows.
He said pension reform had been put off too long in France, where unions have a history of crushing such initiatives.
“A head of state has a duty toward the young and vis-a-vis the fundamental imbalances of his country,” Sarkozy said.
The CGT union put turnout at 3.5 million, on a par with its record-high estimate for protests earlier in the month. The government said 1.1 million people had turned out.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the government was concerned about violence on the fringes of protests. The head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, also called for calm.
Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where the mayor said 200 youths set cars on fire and smashed public property. The suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie was hit by similar incidents, media reported.
This week will be critical for Sarkozy’s reform and for safeguarding the AAA rating which allows France to finance its large public debt at low market rates.
A majority of voters resent the plan to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, and unions are demanding negotiations on the pensions overhaul.
“I want to live my retirement,” read one protest poster.
Most analysts expect the law will pass within days and the protests will fizzle out. But the unions, which defeated pension and labour reforms with strikes in 1995 and 2006 with the same passion that saw student protests in 1968 drive out President Charles de Gaulle, say they will press on regardless.
“Tougher guys than (Sarkozy) have backed down” said auto factory worker Patrick Planque, 42, at the main march in Paris.
APPEAL FOR CALM
Fuel shortages hit motorists, with nearly one in three of France’s 12,500 gas stations suffering reduced supplies, as refinery strikes went into day eight.
Fillon told parliament measures had been taken to get fuel distribution back to normal in four or five days. The government says it has dipped into a 30-day reserve held by industry but not yet tapped a 60-day strategic reserve.
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.
Police fired tear gas and arrested dozens of rioters in Lyon after a day of running battles, using a helicopter to track gangs and at one stage deploying an armoured car. Police arrested 75 people and 25 were hurt, half of them riot police. Rioters burned or overturned about 30 vehicles, police said.
The Paris march ended without reports of major trouble.
Police said nine people were arrested for robbing people.
Laurence Parisot, head of industry federation MEDEF, told a news conference the construction, infrastructure and chemicals sectors had been hit, and the head of a group representing small and mid-sized business, Jean-Francois Roubaud, said the economic crisis had left small firms too weak to bear more unrest.
Tuesday was 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.
Sarkozy hopes the Senate will approve his bill by Friday, after which it needs a last vote by a parliamentary committee.
“We are heading out of the crisis in the sense that the law will be adopted,” said Hubert Landiers, political scientist at Paris’ Sciences-Po University. “The real question is: how are the parties going to exit this crisis while saving face?”