Street clashes as French battle pension reform

French workers and students took to the streets once again Tuesday to defend their right to retire at 60, with youths battling police, petrol stations running dry and many flights cancelled.

Paris: French workers and students took to the streets once again Tuesday to defend their right to retire at 60, with youths battling police, petrol stations running dry and many flights cancelled.

The coordinated protests are the sixth in a series of days of action against President Nicolas Sarkozy`s plan to raise the pension age to 62, and follow days of strikes, skirmishes and full-blown street marches.

The Interior Minister vowed tough action as clashes erupted anew outside a secondary school in Nanterre, near Paris, where youths burned a car and threw rocks at riot police for the second day in a row.

The Education Ministry said that 379 schools were disrupted by protests Tuesday morning, the highest number yet.

"We need to be firm," Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Europe 1 radio. "There are rights, the right to strike, the right to demonstrate. There is no right to smash things up."

The Interior Ministry said police on Monday arrested 290 rioters in various towns, and that four police officers had been injured.

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

With production at all France`s oil refineries shut down since last week, fuel shortages have hit more than 2,600 petrol stations, or around one in five nationwide, according to a tally of oil industry figures.

French fuel and heating federation FF3C said the "extremely worrying" situation "should definitely be called a shortage".

"Fuel depots are being taken hostage in a political conflict, fuel is being exploited," said Michel-Edouard Leclerc, who runs the E.Leclerc network of supermarkets.

"With the current rhythm of deliveries, there will be none left by the end of the week," he said.

However, the International Energy Agency said that France has "sufficient stocks" to deal with the situation.

After the government`s fuel crisis group met on Monday, the Interior Ministry said: "Because of people buying as a precautionary measure and the delivery problems ... supply tensions have been noted in several places."

The Interior Ministry put a fuel delivery plan for the most affected regions into action on Tuesday, while authorities in the western region of Calvados requisitioned 12 petrol stations for use by rescue and emergency services.

Half of flights from Paris Orly airport were to be cancelled on Tuesday, and around one in three at the main Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and regional airports.

Slightly over half of express TGV trains will be running, while the Eurostar line under the Channel to London is expected to run normally and nine out of 10 high-speed Thalys connections will run to Belgium.

As well as train workers and truck drivers, postal workers, telephone employees, teachers and sections of the media are also on strike.

Garbage collectors in the southern city of Toulouse on Tuesday joined striking colleagues in Marseille, where rubbish is piling up on the streets.

Unions want to force Sarkozy to abandon a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, which is in the final days of its journey through a Parliament in which the right-wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.

Sarkozy has staked his credibility on the bill, but unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when Jacques Chirac`s government backed down on pension reform after a paralysing transport strike.

The government has shown no sign of backing down on the reform, currently being examined by the Senate, although the final debate has been pushed back to at least Thursday with hundreds of amendments still to be debated.

Most French back the current protests, with a poll published Monday in the popular Le Parisien daily showing that 71 percent of those asked expressed either support or sympathy for the movement.

Bureau Report