French students up protests over retirement reform

AP News
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Posted: Oct 14, 2010 3:44 PM
French students up protests over retirement reform

French students blockaded more high schools and universities Thursday, as the third straight day of nationwide strikes over the government's retirement reforms snarled train travel and sent a renewed challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

France's BFM TV showed groups of students toppling trash cans in southeast France, erecting barricades in the middle of a Paris avenue, and being closely watched by police in several areas.

While the protesting students won't reach retirement age for decades, the government is keeping a close eye on their rallies because student protests have brought down major government reforms in the past.

Several labor unions also announced another round of nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday _ in addition to the planned street protests throughout the country expected Saturday.

The students and labor unions see Sarkozy's pension reform _ raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 _ as an attack on their well-deserved social protections.

Thursday's protests were mostly peaceful, but a 16-year-old was hospitalized in the Paris suburb of Montreuil after he was hit by a rubber projectile from a flash-ball gun fired by police, the UNL high schoolers' union said. A police official said officers responded after students blockading a high school there pelted them with projectiles.

Police in the Val-de-Marne region southeast of Paris detained about 15 students for hurling projectiles at police and vandalizing property, the regional government office said. Another 22 youths were detained in the central city of Lyon following clashes with police.

A police officers' union lashed out those who have called on high schoolers to join the protests.

"Alliance Police National denounces certain position, some more clearly stated than others, advocating high school and college students to participate in the demonstrations," the union said.

In Toulouse, police estimated that 7,000 people joined a protest march against the pension reforms, though unions insisted that nearly three times as many took part.

Meanwhile, workers at oil giant Total's six refineries in France kept protesting, and union leaders said "not one drop of oil" has been produced at the plants since Tuesday morning. The refinery blockages have raised worries of possible fuel shortages.

In all, 10 of France's 12 refineries are on strike. "A fuel shortage can be expected in the coming days," the CGT union at Total said.

The National Federation of Road Transporters warned that its members had begun to report difficulties in finding fuel. The French truckers federation said it had asked French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi to open the country's fuel reserves to its members.

The head of a French service station owners' union said members were having to import more fuel from Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain to make up for shortages.

While Paris transit workers were mostly back on the job after strikes earlier this week, workers of the SNCF rail authority continued their walkout for a third day, disrupting high-speed TGV and local train traffic. About 20 percent of train employees were on strike Thursday, the SNCF said. Workers voted to extend the strike through Friday.

Sarkozy has stood firmly by the reform despite this week's protests, and his governing conservatives say it is the only way to save the failing pension system in a country with a huge budget deficit and sluggish economic growth. Even with the reform, however, France's retirement age would still remain one of the lowest in the developed world.

Speaking on a visit to a research lab in southwest France, Sarkozy accused his opponents of "resistance to change ... We cannot close our eyes to our deficits _ our duty is to act."

France's Senate pushed back a planned vote on the retirement reform bill until next Wednesday to debate some 820 amendments floated by the Socialist-led opposition. It had been scheduled to vote Friday.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.