x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

French retirement protests escalate

High school students clashed with riot police, lorry drivers blocked roads and petrol stations ran out of fuel as protests escalated against the government's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

The Paris suburb of Nanterre.
The Paris suburb of Nanterre.

French high school students clashed with riot police, lorry drivers blocked roads and petrol stations ran out of fuel as protests escalated on Monday against the government's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Police fired tear gas at youths who set a car on fire, smashed bus stops and hurled rocks outside a school in the Paris suburb of Combes-la-Ville, where students protested against a move that is central to the reform agenda of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The protests disrupted 300 schools, officials said, and cities across France saw students take part in fresh street demonstrations, several of which saw police arresting rampaging youths.

The government, which has stood firm on Mr Sarkozy's plan through months of protests, assured the public that infrastructure would not freeze up despite a week-long strike at oil refineries that dried up supplies at hundreds of the roughly 12,500 petrol stations nationwide.

"The situation is critical," said a spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil. "Anyone looking for diesel in the Paris and Nantes [western France] regions will have problems," she said.

Lorry drivers also joined the movement that has brought millions onto the streets in recent weeks. Another day of mass strikes and nationwide protest rallies was planned for today.

Half of all flights to and from Paris Orly airport and 30 per cent of flights at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and other French airports will be cancelled due to today's strikes, aviation officials said.

In Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways said late yesterday there was no change in its flight schedules.

And Emirates Airline was operating its twice-daily service from Paris, though it would "closely monitor the situation in France in case operational changes are required", a spokesman in Dubai said.

In the French capital, Mr Sarkozy held the latest in a daily series of meetings on how to deal with the protest movement before the government announced it had activated an emergency crisis cell charged with maintaining fuel supplies.

Labour wants to force the French leader to abandon a bill to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age at which a full state pension kicks in from 65 to 67. The bill is in the final days of its journey through a parliament in which the right-wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.

Mr Sarkozy has staked his credibility on the reform, but unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when the then-president Jacques Chirac backed down on pension reform after a lengthy transport strike that paralysed France.

Most French back the protest movement, with a poll published yesterday in the popular daily Le Parisien showing that 71 per cent of those asked expressed either support for or sympathy with the anti-reform protests.

Lorry drivers staged go-slows on motorways near Paris and several provincial cities, blocked access to goods supply depots and joined oil workers blocking fuel depots to defend their right to retire at 60.

With 11 out of France's 12 oil refineries shut down by strike action, and many fuel depots blocked by pickets, panic buying led to a 50 per cent jump in petrol sales last week. By yesterday, about 1,500 petrol stations at French supermarkets had run out of fuel, their industry association said.

Some 4,500 of France's petrol stations are attached to shopping centres, and they are the country's busiest, supplying 60 per cent of the fuel used by French motorists.

Oil workers maintained their pickets or threw up new ones outside fuel depots.

"We will stay here as long as we can," said Joseph Sieiro of the union Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, one of the hundred people, most of them lorry drivers, who turned up on Monday morning to block an oil terminal at Port-La-Nouvelle in southern France.

Unions slammed management's reopening of a crucial pipeline bringing fuel to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which officials warned could have run empty as early as yesterday, saying untested fuel was flowing to planes.

Unions have said their protests may not end even after the pension reform plan is passed by the Senate this week.

The opposition Socialists again denounced Mr Sarkozy for failing to engage in dialogue over the reforms.

"He is trying to make us think he is carrying out great reforms to save our economy, but in fact he is smashing our social model."

* With reporting by staff reporter Ivan Gale, Agence France-Presse and Reuters