x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

French protesters block Marseille airport

Protesters blockade airport, truckers tie up highways and Lady Gaga cancels concert ahead of tense Senate vote on raising the retirement age.

Protesters block the Marseilles airport ahead of the vote on whether to raise the retirement age.
Protesters block the Marseilles airport ahead of the vote on whether to raise the retirement age.

PARIS  // French protesters blockaded Marseille's airport, truckers tied up highways and Lady Gaga cancelled concerts in Paris ahead of a tense senate vote on Thursday on raising the retirement age.

A quarter of the nation's gas stations were out of fuel despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's orders to force open fuel depots barricaded by striking workers.

Petrol shortages and violence on the margins of student protests have heightened the standoff between the government and labour unions who see retirement at 60 as a hard-earned right.

Students barricaded a Paris high school and planned protests nationally later on Thursday, when the senate wraps up protracted debate on a reform that Sarkozy calls crucial to his presidency.

Student protests have forced the government to its knees in the past, and in recent days some have degenerated into violence. Rioters threw stones at police Wednesday night in the city of Lyon.

The French government - like many heavily-indebted governments around Europe - says raising the retirement age and overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all.

French unions say the working class is unfairly punished by the pension reform and that the government should find money for the pension system elsewhere. They fear this reform will herald the end of an entire network of welfare benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.

"We cannot stop now," Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Workers' Force union, said Thursday of the protest movement.

In Marseille, hundreds of workers blocked all access to the main airport for about three hours early on Thursday. Passengers tugged suitcases along blocked roads as they hiked to the terminal, before police came in and the protesters dispersed.

Protester Leshmi Taguelmint of the CGT trade union, remained determined. "We will continue our action, for the time being we have the whole population behind us and we will continue," he said.

Protesters in cars and trucks also blocked several highways around the country, from near Calais in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, according to the national road traffic centre.

Interior minister Brice Hortefeux stood firm, lashing out at "certain people who take pieces of our territory for battlefields".

Speaking on Europe-1 radio Thursday morning, Hortefeux said 1,901 people have been detained since early last week.

Hortefeux insisted that the country has several weeks of gasoline reserves and that "the trend is toward improvement" in supplies. Still, the environment minister said there were more than 3,000 gas stations empty of fuel.

Families around the country are particularly on edge because of the gasoline shortages because school vacations will start on Friday.

Authorities, however, are hoping that the vacations cool off student tempers. On Wednesday, hooded youths smashed store windows in the Paris suburb of Nanterre and the city of Lyon, as riot police sprayed tear gas in response.

The Senate vote on the measure could come as soon as Thursday, or the debate could drag on for another day or two. Opposition Socialists proposed more than 800 amendments to the pension reform bill approved by the lower house of parliament last month, and the Senators must debate and vote on each one. As of Thursday morning, they still had more than 200 left.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said both the strikes and the violence were taking an economic toll.

"I'm calling on people to be responsible, in particular those who are having a roaring time blocking access and breaking things," she said on Wednesday night. "It's serious for our country."

Lady Gaga's website said the singer postponed two Paris concerts "as there is no certainty the trucks can make it" to the show.