France Gets Tough With Protesters

Protests in France

Police broke through barricades around French fuel depots today as the government took a tough line with strikers threatening to bring the country to a halt.

With no sign that workers protesting over plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 were relaxing their action, riot officers forced them away, restoring petrol to areas where pumps were dry.

President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered all fuel depots forcibly reopened and vowed that he would “carry the retirement reform through to the end.” Despite France’s tolerance for a long tradition of strikes and protest, official patience appeared to be waning after weeks of actions that have caused traffic chaos, cancelled flights, thrown public transport into chaos and halted fuel supplies.

With about a quarter of the country’s 12,000 filling stations empty, authorities stepped in overnight to force open three fuel depots blocked by striking workers for days.

At one site in the western town of Donges, police formed a corridor along the road leading to the depot to allow trucks to pass in and out.

Interior minister Brice Hortefeux warned that the blockades threatened emergency services and could have grave consequences for the entire French economy and public health and safety.

However around 70 ships were still waiting in waters outside Marseille because oil terminals there were blocked by strikers.

After months of largely peaceful disruptions, some protests erupted into scattered violence this week. But Sarkozy vowed that his party would pass the reform in a Senate vote expected tomorrow.

Meanwhile protesters waving red flags temporarily blocked the main road leading to one of two terminals at Orly Airport.

The protests halted traffic to the airport and some passengers walked hundreds of yards along an emergency lane to get there, dragging suitcases behind them. In one terminal, screens showed that 10 of 52 flights were cancelled.

At Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, the nation’s biggest, protesters sang the French national anthem before pushing through a police barricade.

The CGT Transport union says protests also closed the Clermont-Ferrand airport in the south and disrupted airports in Nice and Nantes.

Over the past week, 1,423 people have been detained for protest-related violence and 62 police officers injured.

Brice said he had ordered police to look at video surveillance to find more law breakers, suggesting further arrests could be ahead.

In the Paris suburb of Nanterre about 100 students blocked the school entrance and part of the road, while a “tranquility team” of about 30 adults in special red jackets sought to keep things calm.

Then about 100 other youths arrived and started darting through the town streets, smashing store windows and throwing stones. Some store owners lowered metal blinds to avoid looting.

The pavements were littered with glass from bus shelters and illuminated signs that had been smashed yesterday. All the vehicles were removed from the street in front of the school, because a car had been torched there the day before.

“We try to protect local residents and the mother passing by with children, we try to control the traffic to avoid that young people get hit, because this is not in the interest of the demonstration,” said Elisabeth Guerrier, a social worker trying to act as a mediator in the conflict.

In the city of Lyon, new clashes broke out with rioters running in small groups down different streets, throwing projectiles and setting off flares. At least 700 police officers were deployed, and some responded with tear gas and cordoned the rioters off. A gendarme helicopter circled overhead at low altitude. A delivery truck was set ablaze.

Students plan new protests tomorrow, with a demonstration in Paris hours before the Senate votes on the retirement measure.

Strikes also continued today at the SNCF national rail network, and one in three TGV high-speed trains was cancelled.

In Marseille 150 members of the civil security service – which includes firefighters – intervened to collect heaps of rubbish piled up after days of strikes by bin men.

No buses ran in the city because unions blocked the main depot.

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