French students clash with police in protests

French students clash with police in protests
PARIS: French protestors blocked key sites and clashed with police Thursday as unions called for further mass nationwide protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age.

With no fuel left in more than a quarter of petrol pumps, police are playing what unions dubbed a game of cat and mouse with protestors at depots and refineries in a bid to prevent the country grinding to a halt.

"By taking the French economy, businesses and daily life hostage, you will destroy jobs," Sarkozy said, accusing trade union leaders of undermining France's fragile economic recovery.

"We can't be the only country in the world where, when there's a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else. That's not possible. That's not democracy," he declared, vowing tough action against rioters.

But the head of the powerful CGT union Bernard Thibault said that, faced with government "intransigence", there was "no reason to stop these protests" and "we recommend further action from next week."

"We have to continue with the most massive actions possible," he told RMC radio. Unions are to meet in the afternoon to decide on holding further mass rallies, possibly on Tuesday, a week after the last protest.

More than a million people took to the streets then, the sixth day of action since September, to protest the unpopular plan to raise minimum retirement from 60 to 62 and full pension payments from 65 to 67.

Workers in key sectors have been on strike for more than a week to protest the reform, which the government says is essential to reduce France's public deficit. Unions and political opponents say it penalises workers.

Sarkozy called unrest in the eastern city of Lyon, which has lasted several days and included looting as well as scuffles with police, "scandalous" and vowed that "the troublemakers will not have the last word.

Youths have been fighting running battles with riot police in several cities, and on Thursday a schoolgirl was hospitalised during clashes with police outside a high school in the central city of Poitiers.

A student representative said the injured girl had three ribs broken after being beaten by a police truncheon. Police blamed jostling and denied anyone had been hit.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that more than 1,900 people had been arrested so far -- 245 people on Wednesday alone.

Police have arrested children as young as 10 at the demonstrations, some of whom have been tried in juvenile courts.

An 18-year-old schoolgirl was jailed for a month in Lyon for having set fire to containers. The city's prosecutor Marc Desert noted the unprecedented "proportion of younger and younger girls" among troublemakers at protests.

Spontaneous mass demonstrations have started to spring up around the country, with at least 8,000 people taking to the streets of the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday. Unions put the figure at 35,000.

Between 3,500 and 5,000 students took to the streets of the southwestern city of Bordeaux, carrying banners such as "We would have burnt this reform but there's no petrol left."

Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours before being cleared by police, causing tailbacks of several kilometres (miles).

Troops have also been sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where collectors are on strike, while a similar strike in Toulouse intensified on Thursday, with workers blocking access to dumps.

The port at Marseille-Fos, hit by a month of strike action, has almost no moorings left as dozens of ships wait offshore, unable to unload or refuel.

"People in Marseille have never seen so many boats," said officer of the watch Gilles Bellafronte.

The country's 12 oil refineries have been closed down by strikes, and Hortefeux said that 14 of 219 fuel depots were currently blocked by protestors despite Sarkozy ordering police to keep fuel flowing.

Filling station operators appealed to Prime Minister Francois Fillon to send in riot police, or even the military, to free up depots.

"If the government did what it said it would and sent in riot police to unblock fuel depots and refineries, the problem could be solved very quickly, in a few days," said Christian Roux of the petroleum suppliers' association CNPA.

"Perhaps we need Fillon to make a move, even send in the tanks."

Three-quarters of express TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, although only half of provincial trains were operating.

The pension law has been passed by the National Assembly and is slowly working its way through the Senate, which could pass it on Friday.