- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PARIS (AP) — Workers opposed to a higher retirement age blocked or disrupted access to airports in Paris and around the country on Wednesday as hooded youths smashed store windows amid clouds of tear gas outside the capital.

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 to raise the retirement 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, many protests erupted into violence this week over the retirement reform. President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed that his conservative party would pass the bill 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 said 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 snarled traffic, cancelled flights, dwindling gasoline supplies and, now, rising urban violence.

Protesters blocked the main road leading to one of two terminals at Paris’ Orly Airport on Wednesday, then moved to block the road to the other terminal, Aeroports de Paris, the airport authority, said.

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

“It is like we are on another planet,” said Canadian traveler Olivier Lejour, waiting to take off from Charles de Gaulle. While he said it was “fun” to watch, he said the protests disrupted his efforts to work in Paris.

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

With nearly a third of France’s gas stations dry, authorities stepped in without incident overnight to force open three fuel depots blocked by striking workers for days, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

At one site in the western town of Donges, police formed a corridor along the road leading to the depot to allow trucks to pass in and out. Video footage showed officers peacefully herding striking workers away from one depot.

Mr. Hortefeux warned that the blockades threatened emergency services and could have grave consequences for the entire French economy and public health and safety.

“The right to strike does not give anyone the right to prevent people from working or the right to block things, or the right to prevent travel,” Mr. Hortefeux said.

Mr. Hortefeux warned rioters that “the right to protest is not the right to break things, the right to set things on fire, the right to assault, the right to pillage.”

“We will use all means necessary to get these delinquents,” including the GIGN paramilitary police, he said. The police deployed so far have been CRS riot police, helmeted and wielding shields, sometimes firing tear gas or rubber bullets.

Over the past week, 1,423 people have been detained for protest-related violence, he said, more than a third of them Tuesday. Of those, 123 are facing legal action. Mr. Hortefeux said he had ordered police to look at video surveillance to find more perpetrators, suggesting more arrests could be ahead.

He said 62 police officers have been injured in the violence over the past week.

In Nanterre on Wednesday morning, about 100 students blocked the school entrance and part of highway in front of the school, while a “tranquility team” of about 30 adults in special red jackets sought to keep things calm.

Then about 100 other youths arrived and started darting through the town streets, smashing store windows and throwing stones. Some store owners lowered metal blinds to avoid looting. Nine police vans were parked in the surrounding area.

The sidewalks of Nanterre were littered with glass from bus shelters and illuminated signs that had been smashed Tuesday. All the vehicles were removed Wednesday from the street in front of the school because a car had been torched there the day before.

“We try to protect local residents and the mother passing by with children; we try to control the traffic to avoid that young people get hit, because this is not in the interest of the demonstration,” said Elisabeth Guerrier, a social worker trying to act as a mediator in Wednesday’s conflict.

In the city of Lyon, new clashes broke out Wednesday, with rioters running down streets, throwing projectiles and setting off flares. Police responded with tear gas.

This week’s clashes revived memories of student unrest in 2006 that forced the government to abandon another highly unpopular labor bill. And the specter of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing projects nationwide with disenfranchised immigrant populations is never far away.

Students plan new protests Thursday, with a demonstration in Paris hours before the Senate is expected to approve the retirement measure.

Strikes continued Wednesday at the SNCF national rail network, and one in three TGV high-speed trains was cancelled.

Unions staged a protest Wednesday at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where a one-day strike by air traffic controllers Tuesday left about a third of flights cancelled.

In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, authorities intervened to re-open tunnels blocked by protesters Wednesday. No buses were running in Marseille because unions were blocking the main bus depot.

Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.

 

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