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French fishermen protest soaring fuel prices

Fishermen angry over spiraling fuel costs skirmished Wednesday with riot police near Napoleon's Tomb in Paris — part of a wave of protests in France on issues from planned pensions reform to soaring oil prices.
A protester hurls a flare toward police as French fishermen demonstrate in front of the Agriculture Ministry in Paris on Wednesday.Jacques Brinon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fishermen angry over spiraling fuel costs skirmished Wednesday with riot police near Napoleon's Tomb in Paris — part of a wave of protests in France on issues from planned pensions reform to soaring oil prices.

Hours after the clashes, the conservative government appeared to assuage some of fishermen's concerns by announcing plans to speed up $488 million in aid.

But far larger protests awaited Thursday, likely to add pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw or revise reforms that he insists are necessary to fill deficit-ridden state coffers and restore France's competitive edge.

Demonstrations in scores of towns and cities and strikes were planned Thursday against the government's plans for workers to stay one year longer on the job — for a total of 41 years — to receive full retirement benefits.

The strikes were getting under way at France's rail operator SNCF late Wednesday, where about one-third fewer trains were expected to be running during the walkout. International service was not expected to be affected.

Walking off the job
Bus drivers in dozens of towns were expected to walk off the job, and Air France said it expected some delays and other disruptions. But generally flights were likely to operate normally.

Near the Agriculture Ministry and the gilded Invalides museum where Napoleon rests, scores of fishermen clashed Wednesday with riot police. Some tossed flares normally kept on their boats, and police responded with tear gas.

At least two officers were hit by flare canisters, an Associated Press photographer reported from the scene. Police said four police officers were injured in the melee. The extent of their injuries was unclear.

Scores of riot police surrounded the ministry, where long-awaited talks opened Wednesday between fishing industry unions and Agriculture and Fishing Minister Michel Barnier.

Barnier emerged from the meeting promising that the government will release $173 million in aid by the year's end and pay $490 million in aid over two years — instead of three laid out in a plan announced in November.

The government announcement prompted the head of a top group of professional fishermen to urge members to return to work. But some regional fishermen said they would not lift a port blockade until they have a chance to see the fine print of the government's pledge.

More state aid wanted
Fishermen have blockaded ports and oil depots around France for more than a week, causing fuel shortages in some towns. They want more state aid to cope with diesel costs that have nearly doubled since November. Fishermen say the rising prices threaten their livelihoods.

"If this continues, we'll be forced to stop working," said Michel Robin, a 59-year-old who fishes for scallops and mackerel on the Normandy coast and came to Paris for the protest. He said that filling his boat with gas currently makes up 40 percent of his expenses.

Fishermen warned that fish supplies in French markets could dwindle, and that consumers will face higher and higher fish prices. The fishermen also are seeking fewer limits on how much they can fish.

Oil companies "are in the process of making a fortune while we are starving," said Alexis Bottin, a 25-year-old from Trouville on the English Channel.

Also Wednesday, scores of journalists at news agency Agence France-Presse protested outside their headquarters near the Paris stock exchange to register their discontent with alleged pressure from government officials.

Labor unions at the agency called the protest to denounce "repeated attacks on AFP from top French political leaders" — one involving allegations of pressure by a government official on AFP to print a news release. Scores of AFP workers took part in the rally, some wearing gags in their mouths to symbolize what they fear is government intervention in their craft.