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Protests, strikes against pension reform sweep across France

Police, students and unions have clashed as France enters a second week of protests against a pension reform bill. Further strikes and nationwide rallies are expected ahead of the final Senate vote this week.

A striking worker holds union flags and shouts slogans

Striking workers continue to block access to oil depots

Strikes in France turned violent on Monday as high school students joined unions in protesting against President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pension reform plan.

Youths threw petrol bombs at police outside a school in a Paris suburb, and police responded with tear gas as students set cars on fire, smashed bus stops and threw rocks.

Further clashes were reported in Lyon and the eastern towns of Mulhouse and Montbeliard, as nearly 300 schools across France were hit by anti-reform protests.

Truck drivers also joined the movement on Monday, slowing traffic on highways near Paris and several regional cities, blocking access to goods supply depots and joining oil workers in blocking fuel depots.

Workers at France's 12 oil refineries are in their seventh day of a strike, which has led to fuel shortages at filling stations across the country. Around 1,500 gas stations had run out of fuel by Monday, their industry association said, with panic buying leading to a 50 percent jump in sales last week.

Oil workers were determined to keep up their blockades. "We will stay here as long as we can," CFDT union's Joseph Sieiro, one of the 100 people blocking an oil terminal at Port-La-Nouvelle in southern France on Monday morning, told French news agency AFP.

Extensive travel disruptions

A sign tells motorists that the fuel pump is empty in a gas station in Nice

Fuel reserves are running low

An ongoing strike by rail workers continued to disrupt rail travel. The SNCF state rail company said in a statement that one in two high-speed national trains were running on Monday.

Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, one of Europe's biggest hubs, was also seeing travel disruptions on Monday as aircraft refueling staff joined the strike movement.

Unions were outraged as management reopened a crucial pipeline to bring fuel to the airport, which officials warned could have run empty as soon as Monday.

Half of all flights to and from Paris Orly airport and 30 percent of flights at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and other French airports are expected to be canceled on Tuesday due to continuing strikes, according to aviation officials said. Another day of mass strikes and nationwide protest rallies is planned ahead of a final Senate vote on the pension bill on Wednesday.

The government has assured the public that infrastructure would not come to a standstill, despite the week-long strike that has brought millions to the streets. Ministers said the country had plenty of fuel reserves, and that airports especially weren't in any danger of running dry.

"The government is in control," Industry Minister Christian Estrosi told RTL radio. "There will be no blockade for companies, no blockade for transport and no blockade for road users." On Monday, the government activated an emergency government crisis unit charged with maintaining fuel supplies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy is confident his reforms will pass

Bill expected to pass

Protesters want to force Sarkozy to abandon a proposed law that would raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, and bring the full retirement age to 67. His center-right government says the measure is the only way to get the bloated pension deficit under control.

The bill has already been approved by the lower house of parliament, and the Senate is expected to vote on it on Wednesday. The government hopes to have the bill passed by the end of October.

A majority of French people - 71 percent according to a poll published in the daily Le Parisien - support the protests. The opposition Socialists have denounced Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon for failing to engage in dialogue over the reforms.

"We have a prime minister who thinks he is Churchill but who is only Thatcher," said Harlem Desir, the party's deputy leader, referring to Britain's wartime leader and its 1980s Conservative premier.

"He is trying to make us think he is carrying out great reforms to save our economy but in fact he is smashing our social model."

Author: Martin Kuebler (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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