Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Violent Turn to French Strikes Could Backfire on Union Protesters

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Violent Turn to French Strikes Could Backfire on Union Protesters

Article excerpt

French strikes over pension reforms turned violent today as hard- line elements from an oil-workers union vowed to press on.

Strikes and protests in France were inconclusive on a day seen that was expected to help determine the strength of a movement against pension reform that has become a visceral harangue against the Sarkozy administration.

But brinkmanship by hard-core oil refinery workers, who say they will not relent until the government abandons its plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, is raising concern among small business leaders, trucking firms, and airport administrators. A crisis meeting was called at the French Elysee Palace today to address the problem of energy shortages.

Some 4,000 of 12,500 gas stations are now out of fuel, said Jean- Louis Borloo, the French energy minister. Jet fuel shortages and airport and Air France staff walkouts brought cancellations to 30 percent of international flights and 50 percent of domestic flights across the country, Agence France-Presse reports. The transport branch of the CGT labor union vowed to blockade French airports on Wednesday.

Europe's 5 most generous pension systems

French police today reported slightly more than 1 million marchers around the country, with increased activity in cities like Toulouse, Rennes, and Marseilles. In Paris, a smaller, peaceful crowd dutifully marched.

However, mixed bands of young people - some pension protesters, some rioting without an evident interest in politics - took on police in tear-gas battles in several cities, such as Lyon and Nanterre, where cars were burned and a trade and labor court was ransacked.

A violent turn

Some analysts say a violent turn to the protest could work to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's favor if a majority of citizens turn fearful. But so far the number of violent incidents is far short of youth riots in 2006.

Mr. Sarkozy has the parliamentary votes needed to pass a pension reform bill this week - designed to put the French system more in line with other nations, as French live longer. But with 71 percent of the nation sympathetic with the strikers, according to polls, it may be a Pyrrhic victory for the French president - regardless of the outcome. …

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