Over a million join French pensions street protest

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Over a million people took to French streets on Tuesday to defend their right to retire at 60, as the government struggled to deal with strike-induced fuel shortages threatening to paralyse the economy.

Clashes erupted between youths and riot police in several towns and shops in the city of Lyon were looted as workers and students came out in force around the country to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular reform.

The latest day of protests, the sixth since September, drew around 1.1 million people onto the streets, police said, slightly fewer than the 1.23 million on the last comparable day, October 12.

The CGT, France's biggest union, told AFP it estimated overall turnout at 3.5 million, equal to its estimate for October 12. Unions' estimates have habitually been several times higher than those of police.

With more than 200 protests on Tuesday, all 12 French oil refineries shut down by strikes and truckers blocking roads, Sarkozy instructed the cabinet to draw up a plan to stop France grinding to a standstill.

Production at French oil refineries has been shut down since last week and fuel shortages have hit more than 2,600 petrol stations, or around one in five nationwide, according to an AFP tally of oil industry figures.

Environment and Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said that "a little under 4,000 petrol stations are awaiting deliveries" -- there are around 12,500 filling stations in France.

French fuel and heating federation FF3C said the "extremely worrying" situation "should definitely be called a shortage", while the International Energy Agency said France has "sufficient stocks" to deal with the situation.

Authorities in Normandy requisitioned 12 petrol stations for use by rescue and emergency services, while Prime Minister Francois Fillon said a third of departments or local administrations were experiencing fuel shortages.

Fillon chaired a meeting with several ministers and oil industry officials on how to deal with the crisis and ministers afterwards headed into another meeting with Sarkozy.

Fillon's office said the government would ensure access to fuel depots, many of which are blocked by strikers, and that distributors would pool their fuel and trucks to help needy stations.

The interior minister promised tough action as clashes erupted anew outside a secondary school in Nanterre, near Paris, where youths burned a car and threw rocks at riot police for the second day in a row.

Police fired tear gas and arrested nine youth protestors in Lyon who had overturned cars and set one alight. At leat five shops were later looted, police said.

The ministry said that 1,158 troublemakers had been arrested at demonstrations since the start of the week, 163 of them on Tuesday morning.

The powerful CGT union's transport section called for their strike action to be renewed on Wednesday, encompassing airport staff, air traffic controllers, public transport workers and employees of national railways operator SNCF.

Unions have threatened open-ended action, and Paris Orly airport said that a quarter of its flights would be cancelled on Wednesday morning, after half its flights were cancelled Tuesday.

Around one in three flights at the main Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and regional airports were also cancelled.

Slightly over half of high-speed TGV trains ran, while the Eurostar line under the Channel to London operated normally and nine out of 10 high-speed Thalys connections ran to Belgium.

As well as train workers and truck drivers, postal workers, telephone employees, teachers and sections of the media are also on strike.

Unions want to force Sarkozy to abandon a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, which is in the final days of its journey through a parliament in which the right-wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.

Most French back the current protests, with a poll published Monday in the popular Le Parisien daily showing that 71 percent of those asked expressed either support or sympathy for the movement.

A poll published Tuesday showed that Sarkozy's approval rating dropped this month to its lowest in three years at 30 percent, two percentage points less than when the main pension protests started in September.


© 2010 AFP

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