NBC News and news services
updated 10/21/2010 8:13:36 PM ET 2010-10-22T00:13:36

One of France's biggest unions called on Thursday for further "massive" strike action next week against a planned pension reform that has triggered the biggest and most sustained anti-austerity protests in Europe.

A final Senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular bill is set to be speeded up to make sure it happens on Friday, a parliamentary source told Reuters, following pressure from the government as protests and fuel blockades drag on.

Sarkozy, a conservative who is determined to face down unions and force through an increase in the retirement age, is battling 10-day-old refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades that have dried up a quarter of the nation's petrol pumps.

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His popularity at an all-time low 18 months before a presidential election, Sarkozy is fighting deep public opposition to a reform he says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension shortfall as the population ages.

"The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week," Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio. Union leaders will meet on Thursday evening to agree on fresh action.

"We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets," Thibault said.

Faced with widespread protests against the bill, the government ordered senators to vote on a package of its own design, using an article of the constitution that allows it to step into the parliamentary debate.

Senators can still present the remaining 250 amendments — of some 1,000 — but they cannot vote on each one.

Labor Minister Eric Woerth said Thursday the debate was in the third week and "it's time for the Senate to act."

A Senate vote was expected by week's end. The text then goes to a parliamentary committee before returning to each chamber for a final vote next week.

Defiant unions announced two more days of protest, one on Nov. 6 — long after the bill is likely to become law. The bold action suggested that opponents believe they have the power to force the government's hand.

"The government bears full and complete responsibility for the continued mobilization, given its intransigent attitude, its failure to listen and its repeated provocations," said the statement signed by six unions.

The protests have disrupted transport networks and restricted fuel supplies.

Lady Gaga canceled two concerts in Paris with her website explaining "there is no certainty the trucks can make it" to the show. Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins and his band also canceled a debut tour in Paris.

Gas shortages
Despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's orders to force open fuel depots barricaded by striking workers, NBC News reported a quarter of France's more than 12,000 gas stations remained shut down.

On Thursday, a barricade blocking a road to Marseille airport was erected by hundreds of striking refinery workers. Passengers tugged suitcases along blocked roads as they hiked to the terminal, before police came in and the protesters dispersed.

Carriers operating out of Paris's airports have cancelled a quarter of flights, NBC News reported.

The gasoline shortages and violence on the margins of student protests have heightened the standoff between the government and labor unions who see retirement at 60 as a hard-earned right.

Story: French strike to save 'birthright' of benefits

New violence broke out in Lyon on Thursday morning, where police chased rampaging youths who overturned a car, and tried to subdue the violence with tear gas.

Sarkozy, with his popularity at near-record lows, says the bill is needed to curb the pensions deficit and reduce debt.

"It is not in blocking, preventing people from going to work that we make things easier," he said. "I am not doing this for ideological reasons. I am doing this because it is my duty."

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In the wealthy city of Lyon, clashes between youths and riot police, which began last week on the fringes of anti-pension protests, continued on Thursday.

Sarkozy called the clashes "scandalous" and said rioters would be punished.

On Thursday morning, students also shut down the Turgot High School near the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris after a student union vote.

Teens sat in the middle of the street, barring vehicle traffic. Some sang songs and chanted labor slogans while police guarded the area. The protests shut down 312 high schools, NBC News reported.

Americans warned
The U.S. Embassy in Paris warned Americans "to avoid demonstrations currently taking place in France." The warning said peaceful demonstrations can escalate into violence, and urges visitors to check with their airlines in case of airport disruptions, and check with rental car agencies about the availability of gasoline.

However, apart for sporadic violence in Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, the street protests have largely been peaceful.

The government said 245 people were arrested on Wednesday, taking the nationwide tally to almost 2,000 since October 12.

Newsweek: A glossary of French protest lingo

Union leaders were due to meet Thursday evening to agree fresh action.

"The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week," Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, told RMC radio.

"We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets," Thibault said.

The French government — like many heavily indebted governments around Europe — says raising the retirement age and overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all.

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French unions say the working class is unfairly punished by the pension reform and that the government should find money for the pension system elsewhere.

They fear this reform will herald the end of an entire network of welfare benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.

"We cannot stop now," Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Workers' Force union, said Thursday of the protest movement.

The fuel shortage were starting to seriously affect life in France.

Nurses are saying they can no longer make house calls to ailing seniors and medical supplies are not reaching hospitals, NBC News reported.

Laurette Meyer's heart sank when she saw the empty pumps.

"It is penalizing. We work in the building construction business. We have employees who drive all day long in order to build the houses for our customers and it's starting to be very difficult," she said.

Kamal Guerfa works — or at least shows up for work — at a gas station in Lyon. But on Thursday, there was nothing to pump.

"We are here, ready to work, there's no problem with that. The problem is that people come to get gas and there is none. That's the problem," he said.

Families around the country are also on edge over the gasoline shortages because school vacations start Friday.

Authorities, however, are hoping that the vacations cool off student tempers.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: France enters 8th day of protests

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