French Protests Over Pension Turn Violent

The strikes in France have reached major sectors of society, with passenger jet service cut in half, roads blocked and schools closed. All this in protest of a vote this week in the French Senate that would increase the age of retirement from 60 to 62.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

There was violence on the streets of Paris today, as demonstrators again turned out to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to change the retirement system. It is the fourth day of action in a month. And with much of the country now gripped by a fuel shortage, matters appear to be reaching a crisis point, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of protest)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Paris reverberated with the sounds of a protest in full momentum today. More than a million people turned out in the streets across the country, and there's a definite feeling that the demonstrators are starting to gain the upper hand. Teenage protestors Miel and Morgan Margot(ph) are sisters.

(Soundbite of protest)

Ms. MIEL MARGOT: (French spoken)

Ms. MORGAN MARGOT: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Look at the size of this crowd, especially the young people, they say. Every time young people come into the streets to protest, the government gives in. Student demonstrations turned violent this morning when hooligans joined in.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Television showed footage of burning cars and confrontations between hundreds of hooded youths and riot police in Paris and Leon. In the town Le Mans, a middle school was burned to the ground. There was high emotion in the French senate, which is currently debating the retirement reform bill, which it is supposed to pass later this week.

(Soundbite of senate debate)

BEARDSLEY: The main thrust of the reform will be to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age to receive a full pension from 65 to 67. Protest strikes against the bill have escalated too. All 12 of the nation's refineries are blocked, and today, 4,000 gas stations were reported to be either short of supplies or completely out of fuel.

President Sarkozy is in Normandy hosting a summit meeting with the leaders of Russia and Germany. He said he'd deal with the illegal strikes when he returned to Paris tomorrow.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) Everyone has the right to express themselves in a democracy, but without violence. I'm going to have to unblock a few situations because the majority of people want to work and they shouldn't be kept from getting gasoline.

BEARDSLEY: Bernard Viver is an expert on labor relations. He thinks a majority of unions actually want the government to reform the pension system in order to save it.

Mr. BERNARD VIVER (Labor Relations Expert, France): (Through translator) But a small left wing minority wants to radicalize this social movement and turn it into a political movement to bring down the government.

BEARDSLEY: Viver says many people in France are now worried that what was a popular protest movement is now getting out of hand.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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