Unions to call fresh action as French protests intensify
French protestors Thursday blocked transport hubs and fuel depots as unions met to decide on a next day of nationwide action against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age.
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.
Youths have been fighting running battles with riot police in several cities, and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that more than 1,900 people had been arrested so far -- 245 people on Wednesday alone.
Police had arrested children as young as 10 at the demonstrations, some of whom had been tried in juvenile courts.
"Some people are using parts of the country as battlegrounds and that's totally unacceptable," Hortefeux said.
Protestors blockaded a fuel depot in Brest, in the northwest, early Thursday, the day after police cleared them from the strategic site.
Riot police moved in to clear protestors blocking a logistics hub near Lille, in the north, as strikers set up new road blocks in Normandy, often on roundabouts and favouring those near fuel depots or refineries.
Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours, 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.
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.
"If it is not stopped quickly, this disorder which is aimed at paralysing the country could have consequences for jobs by damaging the normal running of economic activity," Sarkozy said Wednesday.
The protests have already cost national carrier Air France 25 million euros, or around five million euros each strike day, La Tribune financial daily quoted an airline official as saying.
Three-quarters of express TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, although only half of provincial trains were operating.
The speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said that he hoped the law would pass through the senate quickly.
© 2010 AFP