(by Jenny Barchfield, YahooNews.com) AP, PARIS – Masked youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn. Hundreds of flights were canceled, long lines formed at gas 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 find a solution to the fuel crisis that has seen more than 1,000 gas stations shuttered nationwide.
The protesters are trying to prevent the French 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 vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidized health-care system – in favor 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.
At a high 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 barricaded the area. It was not immediately clear if there were injuries or arrests. Youths also knocked an Associated Press photographer off his motorbike and kicked and punched him as they rampaged down a street adjacent to the school. …..
At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, young people pelted riot police with projectiles and torched garbage cans. Skirmishes between youths and police broke out in other cities.
It was the sixth national day of demonstrations over the planned pension reform since early September. Union leaders have vowed to keep up the pressure until the government scraps the unpopular plan.
Sarkozy called the reform his “duty” as a head of state and said it must go through to save France’s generous but money-losing pension system. 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.
The Paris airport authority warned on its website and in signs at the airports: “Strike on Oct. 19. Serious difficulties expected in access to airports and air traffic.” France’s DGAC civil aviation authority said up to half of flights Tuesday out of Paris’ Orly airport would be scrapped, and 30 percent of flights out of other French airports, including the country’s largest, Charles de Gaulle, serving Paris, would be canceled.
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, with flights expected to return to normal on Wednesday.
Strikes by oil refinery workers have sparked fuel shortages that forced at least 1,000 gas stations to be shuttered. Other stations saw large crowds. At an Esso station on the southeast edge of Paris on Tuesday morning, the line snaked along a city block and some drivers stood with canisters to stock gasoline in case of shortages.
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.
Police in the northwestern town of Grand-Quevilly intervened early Tuesday morning to dislodge protesters blocking a fuel depot, which had been completely sealed off since Monday morning, local officials there said. No one was hurt in the operation, the officials said.
Truckers have joined the protest, running so-called “escargot” operations in which they drive at a snail’s pace on highways. On Tuesday, about 20 truckers blocked an oil depot in Nanterre west of Paris operated by oil giant Total, turning away fellow truckers coming to fill up with gasoline. Police stood by but did not intervene.
Students entered the fray last week, blockading high schools around the country and staging protests that have occasionally degenerated into clashes with police.
Across the country, 379 high schools were blocked or disrupted Tuesday to varying degrees – the highest figure so far in the student movement against the retirement reform, according to the Education Ministry.
The head of the UNEF student union, Jean-Baptiste Prevost, said that students “have no other solution but to continue.”
“Every time the government is firm, there are more people in the street,” he told i-tele news channel, predicting a large turnout for Tuesday’s street marches.
With disruptions on the national railway entering their eighth consecutive day Tuesday, many commuters’ patience was beginning to wear thin. Only about one in two trains were running on some of the Paris Metro lines, and commuters had to elbow their way onto packed trains.
In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, strikes by garbage collectors have left heaps of trash piled along city sidewalks. But still, the piles of rotting garbage don’t appear to have diminished labor union support in a city that has long had an activist reputation.
“Transport, the rubbish, the nurses, the teachers, the workers, the white collar, everyone who works, we should all be united. If there is no transport today, we’re not all going to die from it,” said 55-year-old resident Francoise Michelle.
Sarkozy has stressed that 62 is among the lowest retirement ages in Europe, the French are living much longer and the pension system is losing money.
The measure is expected to pass a vote in the Senate this week. Slated to take place on Wednesday, it’s been pushed back until later in the week so lawmakers have the time to examine hundreds of amendments brought by opposition Socialists and others.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton and APTN cameraman Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.
Copyright ©2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. The information contained in this AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Visit news.yahoo.com/s/ap/eu_france_retirement_strikes for the original post.
1. What do French protesters hope to achieve with their protests?
2. What is the purpose of the bill that protesters oppose? Be specific.
3. Which benefits received by French workers are listed in this article?
4. How does French President Nicolas Sarkozy defend his proposal to raise the retirement age?
5. Where do French workers say the government should get the money to fully fund pensions?
6. Describe the various sectors of French citizenry who are staging protests and how they are affecting everyday life.
7. What is expected to be the outcome of the vote in the French Senate this week?
8. a) Do you think President Sarkozy has a valid argument for raising the retirement age? Do you think the protesters have a valid reason for their strikes and protests? Explain your answers.
b) Ask a parent how he/she views French protests against an increased retirement age.
- The French lower National Assembly has already passed the pension legislation, which raises the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65.
- It’s now in the Senate, which still has 400 amendments to consider, Senator Jean-Claude Gaudin said on LCI television today. The final vote is planned for the evening of Oct. 21, though the debate could last through the weekend, he said.
- The government says it’s still open to some small changes in the bill, and has already made concessions that will allow people in difficult jobs as well as working mothers with three children to retire earlier.
- It says it won’t budge on the retirement ages.
- France’s eight major unions will meet on Oct. 21 to decide how to continue their action.
- Under Sarkozy’s proposal, by 2018 a person would need to work 41 1/2 years to retire with a full pension at 62, and otherwise would have to wait until 67.
- Germany has decided to raise its retirement age to 67 from 65, though Germans can retire on a reduced pension at 63 if they’ve worked 35 years…
- The retirement age in Italy is 65, though working 40 years guarantees a full pension at any age.
- In the U.S., … “normal” retirement age is increasing to 67 from 66, though early retirement with reduced benefits is available from the age of 62.
- In France, the average retiree gets a net 65% of his average qualifying wage in government pension payouts, compared with 61.5% in Germany, 47% in the U.S. and 44% in Britain…
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