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French police fire tear gas at stone-throwing high school students

Masked youths clashed with police and set fires in cities across France on Tuesday as protests against a proposed hike in the retirement age took an increasingly radical turn.
/ Source: news services

Masked youths clad in black torched cars, smashed storefronts and threw up roadblocks Tuesday, clashing with riot police across France as protests over raising the retirement age to 62 took a radical turn.

Hundreds of flights were canceled and desperate drivers searched for gas as oil refinery strikes and blockages emptied the pumps at nearly a third of the nation's gas stations.

A series of nationwide protests against the bill since early September have been largely peaceful. But Tuesday's clashes, notably just outside Paris and in the southeastern city of Lyon, revived memories of student unrest in 2006 that forced the government to abandon another highly unpopular labor bill.

Still, President Nicolas Sarkozy was unbending Tuesday, vowing to guarantee public order in the face of "troublemakers." The government announced a plan to pool gasoline stocks so that dry stations can be filled.

"There are people who want to work, the immense majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline," Sarkozy said.

A new test could come as early as Thursday, when students plan a day of mobilization with a demonstration in Paris hours before the Senate is to vote on the retirement measure.

"The government will continue to dislodge protesters blocking the fuel depots. ... No one has the right to take hostage an entire country, its economy and its jobs," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said after meeting with oil industry executives.

Some 4,000 gas stations — out of 12,700 nationwide — were empty of gas Tuesday afternoon, the Environment Ministry said.

French unions have a long tradition of street protests, but the current strife is particularly worrisome because it has touched the vital energy sector and is drawing often volatile youth into the mix.

Troublemakers tagged onto the coattails of student demonstrators in 2006 when the government was forced to abandon a law making it easier for employers to hire and fire young people. The specter of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing projects nationwide with large disenfranchised immigrant populations is never far away.

Today's protesters are trying to stop lawmakers from approving a bill that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 to prevent the pension system from going bankrupt as citizens live longer and a diminishing pool of young workers pay into the system.

Unions claim the move would erode France's near-sacred tradition of generous social benefits — including long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidized health care system — in favor of "American-style capitalism."

At a high school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, a few hundred youths started throwing stones from a bridge at nearly as many police, who responded with tear gas and barricaded the area. Youths also knocked an Associated Press photographer off his motorbike and kicked and punched him as they rampaged down a street adjacent to the school. Another AP photographer was hit in the face by an empty glass bottle in Lyon, where rioters smashed several store windows.

The violence recalled student protests in 2006 that forced the government to abandon a law making it easier for employers to hire and fire young people. Those protests started peacefully but degenerated into violence, with troublemakers smashing store windows and setting cars and garbage cans ablaze.

Laurence Parisot, head of industry federation MEDEF, told a news conference the construction, infrastructure and chemicals sectors had been hit, and the head of a group representing small and mid-sized business, Jean-Francois Roubaud, said the economic crisis had left small firms too weak to bear more unrest.

The specter of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing projects nationwide with large, disenfranchised immigrant populations was also present.

At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris on Tuesday, young people pelted riot police with projectiles, while youth in the central city of Lyon torched garbage cans and cars as police riposted with clouds of tear gas.

"France wouldn't be what it is today if the generations that came before us hadn't taken to the streets," said Lidwine Mure, a 32-year-old teacher who took part in all six Paris protests since September. Her dark clothes were a collage of pro-strike stickers.

Some 1.1 million people joined 260 protest marches across France on Tuesday, according to the Interior Ministry, though trade unions put the figure at three times that.

The Paris march, which drew some 60,000 people according to police, was peaceful despite a morning of violence at a high school on Nanterre, just west of the French capital, where several hundred youths threw stones at police and scuffled with outsiders. Police, lobbing tear gas, charged and barricaded the area. An Associated Press photographer was knocked off his motorbike and punched by the youths.

The most violent clashes occurred in Lyon, where rampaging youth torched garbage cans and cars and overturned bus stations. Numerous shops were pillaged. A second AP photographer was slightly injured.

Sarkozy has long touted his plan to increase the retirement age as his priority reform ahead of 2012 presidential elections, and the measure is expected to pass easily in the Senate, after being approved earlier by the lower house of parliament.

"We are heading out of the crisis in the sense that the law will be adopted," said Hubert Landiers, political scientist at Paris' Sciences-Po University. "The real question is: how are the parties going to exit this crisis while saving face?"

But victory could come at a high cost: The unpopular measure is widely seen as feeding Sarkozy's dismal approval ratings.

Polls show Sarkozy, who came into office in 2007 with a huge mandate, as unpopular as ever. According to the latest, published Tuesday, he had a 61 percent negative rating with only 35 percent of the 1,002 people surveyed giving him thumbs up. It was conducted by Viavoice for the daily Liberation.

Sarkozy's detractors contend the retirement reform favors the rich and feeds the notion of an elitist France run by a man cozy with captains of industry.

"In France, we have a big problem with inequality and those of us on the bottom are sick and tired of taking the hit, while those on high get off scot-free," said Pascale Thierse, a teacher at the Paris protest.

"With this reform the bottom is again getting swindled, while the richest keep getting tax rebates and the like."

Sarkozy called the reform his "duty" as head of state. The protests in France come as countries across Europe are cutting spending and raising taxes to bring down record deficits and debts from the worst recession in 70 years.

Half of flights Tuesday out of Paris' Orly airport were scrapped, and 30 percent out of other French airports, including the country's largest, Charles de Gaulle outside Paris, were canceled, the DGAC civil aviation authority said. Flights were expected to be normal Wednesday.

Strikes by oil refinery workers have proved most brutal for the French, searching for gas as pumps go empty.

Police in the northwestern town of Grand-Quevilly intervened Tuesday to dislodge protesters blocking a fuel depot, which had been completely sealed off since Monday, officials said.

The youth element added a new dimension to the protests — and a worry for authorities — with student leaders calling for a demonstration in front of the Senate on Wednesday.

The head of the UNEF student union, Jean-Baptiste Prevost, said the young people "have no other solution but to continue."

"Every time the government is firm, there are more people in the street," he told iTele.

The Mediterranean port city of Marseille has been particularly hard hit, with a strike by garbage collectors leaving the streets buried in heaps of trash. Still support for labor remains strong.

"Transport, the rubbish, the nurses, the teachers, the workers, the white collar, everyone who works, we should all be united. If there is no transport today, we're not all going to die from it," said Francoise Michelle, a 55-year-old Marseille resident.