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French Strikers Take To The Streets Again
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French Strikers Take To The Streets Again

Europe

French Strikers Take To The Streets Again

French Strikers Take To The Streets Again
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Protests in France against a government plan to change the retirement system have become more heated. Unions are protesting a proposal to raise the minimum retirement age by two years. But not everyone opposes the plan, and the issue is dividing France.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In France, protesters are out in the streets again today. They're demonstrating against a plan to revamp the retirement system. Nearly half the flights into Paris have been cancelled because of airport strikes. Walkouts in other strategic industries are causing chaos around the country. Eleanor Beardsley reports on the challenges facing President Nicolas Sarkozy.

(Soundbite of car horns)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Truckers jumped into the conflict yesterday, blocking highways around major French cities. And nearly 1,000 filling stations went dry over the weekend amidst continued strikes at oil refineries and panic buying. Young people have also begun blocking their high schools and protesting.

Yesterday, a couple student demonstrations turned violent when hooded hoodlums crashed the protests, setting cars on fire and clashing with riot police.

Meanwhile, the streets of Marseille are filling up with garbage and dozens of oil tankers are stuck at sea waiting for the port to reopen. There is the feeling that things are getting seriously out of control in France. Francois Bayrou is head of centrist political party Modum.�

Mr. FRANCOIS BAYROU (Modum): (Through translator) The situation is more dangerous than weve seen in several years. The truckers, plus the blocked oil refineries, plus the empty gas stations, plus the high school students, it's creating a risky situation that may become more radical.�

BEARDSLEY: The government has begun using the countrys strategic oil reserves to resupply gas stations. But despite the pressure from the street, Sarkozy is holding firm on his plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, with full pension at 67, not 65. The bill has passed the lower house of parliament and is set to be voted by the senate tomorrow.�

Over the weekend, more than a million people marched in the streets nationwide. One uniting factor was their contempt for the president.�

Ms. JEANNE BAUDRY: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Were here to get rid of Sarkozy right now, said protestor Jeanne Baudry. Were not even going to wait for elections.�

Demonstrators also say the retirement reform is unfair because the working class is being asked to bear the brunt of the burden. And there are other reasons for the resistance to the reform, says Bernard Vivier, who heads a think tank on social and labor issues.�

Mr. BERNARD VIVIER: In France, we are very conservative people. Its our history. And we think that because we are a rich country, a country with a great history, we have no need to change. And the world will change. Not us.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has staked his reputation and political future on the pension reform. Vivier says he cannot give in if he wants to run for reelection in 2012. But the French president also has supporters.

In front of a high school in Pariss 8th arrondissement, young members of Sarkozys party try to dissuade students from blocking their school this week. Some of the students admit they want to protest to get out of class, but others seem genuinely concerned about the reform.

Mr. PIERRE HENRI DUMOND (Student): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Pierre Henri Dumond, one of the leaders of the Sarkozy youth movement, is talking to several students. He tries to dispel a widely-held notion here that if older people work longer, that will mean fewer jobs for young people.

Mr. DUMOND: We do have some success here. You know, its very important for us just to come, to explain the reform. I think they are misinformed mainly.

BEARDSLEY: Far from the protest movement, 65-year-old Alain David sweeps up in his butcher shop. Despite recent polls that show a large majority of French people support the strikers, David says most French people know things have to change.�

Mr. ALAIN DAVID (Butcher): (Through translator) I'm very angry against the unions who are manipulating people. France has a huge deficit and if we dont reform our retirement system, were going straight into a wall.�

BEARDSLEY: The unions know this too, says think tank head Bernard Vivier. But he says for the moment theyre only too glad to let Sarkozy do the dirty work and take the blame. But the long-time social observer predicts its only a matter of time before the unions beat a retreat and accept the inevitable retirement reform.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.

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