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French retirement protests take violent turn

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PARIS | Masked youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed increase 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.

Mr. Sarkozy also vowed to ensure that fuel is available to everyone. Some 4,000 gas stations were out of gas Tuesday afternoon, the environment minister said. The prime minister said oil companies agreed to pool gasoline stocks to try to get the dry gas stations filled again.

"The government will continue to dislodge protesters blocking the fuel depots," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said. "No one has the right to take hostage an entire country, its economy and its jobs."

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 dangerous 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."

Mr. Sarkozy's conservative government points out that 62 is among the lowest retirement ages in the world, the French are living much longer than they used to 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 marched 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. Riot police wielding plastic shields surrounded the massive Place des Invalides.

At a high school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, a few hundred youths started throwing stones from a bridge at nearly as many police, who responded with tear gas and barricaded the area.

At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris on Tuesday, young people pelted riot police with projectiles, while youth in the central city of Lyon torched garbage cans and cars as police riposted with clouds of tear gas.

Mr. Sarkozy called the reform his "duty" as head of state. 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.

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