- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PARIS | Workers opposed to a higher retirement age blocked roads to airports around France on Wednesday, leaving passengers in Paris dragging suitcases on foot along an emergency breakdown lane.

Outside the capital, hooded youths smashed store windows amid clouds of tear gas.

Riot police in black body armor forced striking workers away from blocked fuel depots in western France, restoring gasoline to areas where pumps were dry after weeks of protests over the government proposal raising the age from 60 to 62.

Riot officers in the Paris suburb of Nanterre and the southeastern city of Lyon sprayed tear gas but appeared unable to stop the violence.

After months of largely peaceful disruptions, some protests erupted into scattered violence this week over the government’s push to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed that his conservative party would pass the reform in a Senate vote expected Thursday.

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.”

Mr. Sarkozy ordered all fuel depots forcibly reopened and vowed Wednesday that he would “carry the retirement reform through to the end.” And despite France’s tolerance for a long tradition of strikes and protest, official patience appeared to be waning after weeks of actions that have snarled traffic, canceled flights and dwindling gasoline supplies and, now, rising urban violence.

Protesters waving red union flags and reflective vests temporarily blocked the main road leading to one of two terminals at Orly Airport on Wednesday. The ADP airport authority warned on its website of “serious difficulties expected in access to airports and air traffic.”

The protests tangled traffic to the airport and some passengers walked hundreds of yards along an emergency lane to get there, dragging suitcases behind them. In one terminal, screens showed that 10 of 52 flights Wednesday afternoon were canceled.

At Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, the nation’s biggest, protesters sang the French national anthem before pushing through a police barricade.

The CGT Transport union says protests also shut down the Clermont-Ferrand airport in the south and disrupted airports in Nice and Nantes.

With nearly a third of France’s gas stations dry, authorities stepped in overnight to force open three fuel depots blocked by striking workers for days, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

There are still more than 3,000 gas stations empty of fuel, or about a quarter of those nationwide, he said Wednesday.

Over the past week, 1,423 people have been detained for protest-related violence and 62 police officers injured, he said. He said he ordered police to look at video surveillance to find more perpetrators, suggesting more arrests could be ahead.

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