Fresh clashes broke out Wednesday between protesters and police in France as hundreds of thousands rallied in opposition to planned pension reforms. About 1.1 million people have demonstrated across the country, French media quoted police as saying. Unions put the figure at 3.5 million nationwide, with the rolling strike in its second week.
Cars were set alight and buildings damaged in the Paris suburb of Nanterre while a van was set ablaze in Lyon, according to Agence France-Presse. Video footage shot by a CNN iReporter on Monday night showed queues of cars lined up at gas stations in the Paris suburbs. He said there was a three to four-hour wait for diesel fuel. In Marseille, officials said that they would use 150 city employees to help clear away mounds of garbage, while some protesters used trucks to block tunnels in the early hours of the morning and shut down bus and tram services.
France has begun importing electricity as the strikes take hold of energy supplies. In one hour on Wednesday, 5,990 megawatts were imported, equivalent to the output of six nuclear reactors. At least 12 of France’s 58 reactors are shut for maintenance but the unions say production has been cut at four others. The CGT union said striking workers had lowered output at the Cattenom nuclear plant in north eastern France. “We’re ready to continue striking every day and go all the way,” a CGT union representative near Marseille told Reuters. It also claimed that strikers in the South West had cut power to 15 town halls controlled by Sarkozy’s UMP party. France’s other energy supplies have already been severely disrupted by industrial action which has left all the country’s 12 oil refineries blockaded for more than a week and a quarter of its petrol stations empty. MP’s were told on Wednesday that 3,190 had run dry. Striking gas workers were also reported to have stopped gas from being injected into the country’s network from three out of 12 storage sites.
Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said on TF1 television’s evening news that the government hoped petrol pumps would be full again in a few days. She also urged people rioting on the fringes of protests or blockading fuel depots to think about France’s image and its need to speed up its economic recovery. “I truly appeal to people’s sense of responsibility, particularly those who think it’s fun to blockade things and smash them up,” Lagarde said. “It’s serious for our country because France is missing a chance to come out of the crisis under better conditions than others.” (Reuters)
In spite of the government’s claims that the protests will gradually fizzle out, union workers say they will not back down. “You cannot say, ‘now that it’s been adopted we simply swallow the law and everyone goes home’. I think we have to go on,” said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union. French President Nicolas Sarkozy told ministers Wednesday he had ordered police to break the blockades at fuel depots, with three peacefully reopened overnight. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux authorized use of the paramilitary police to break blockades at fuel depots. He warned rioters that “the right to protest is not the right to break things, the right to set things on fire, the right to assault, the right to pillage.” He added: “We will use all means necessary to get these delinquents.” (New York Times)
The BBC’s Christian Fraser said this force was equivalent to a SWAT team whose normal duties include hostage rescue. In the early hours of Wednesday, riot police lifted the blockade at three fuel depots in Donges, La Rochelle and Le Mans. However, strikers reimposed their blockade at Donges. In the south of the country, unions blocked the fuel depot at Trapil, which supplies civilian and military airports in the region, but were later said to have left the site of their own accord. The BBC’s correspondent said the unions and the government were engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse over the fuel blockades.
Transport workers continued their protests and the national rail operator, the SNCF, said one in three high-speed TGV trains had been cancelled. About 300 striking workers staged a protest at France’s main airport, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle in Paris, blocking the main terminal building. They sang the national anthem before pushing through a police barricade and marching through the building, blowing whistles and waving flags. Protesters also blocked the main road leading to one of the two terminals at Orly airport in Paris, then blocked the road to the other terminal, according to the Paris airport authority. “For millions of our citizens, transportation is a vital issue. This is a fundamental freedom,” Sarkozy said. (CNN)
President Sarkozy issued a statement elaborating on the fact that the disruption to travel could not continue: “If it is not stopped quickly, this disorder which is aimed at paralyzing the country could have consequences for jobs by damaging the normal running of economic activity.” (BBC)
The French education ministry said students from 379 high schools are
skipping classes to join the strikes. Some students told CNN in Paris that they are worried they won’t be able to get jobs if the current generation hangs onto jobs for an extra two years.
The government is working to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and make other changes to the pension system with Senate lawmakers due to vote on the proposals on Thursday. French senators stayed in the chamber until 3 a.m. Tuesday, working their way through roughly 1,000 amendments to the bill. Sarkozy, the main proponent of pension reform, said it was “essential” and that “France will implement it.” (CNN) The government contends that France could not afford the earlier retirement payments. The lower house of parliament has already passed it, by a vote of 329 to 233. If there are substantial differences between the Senate and National Assembly versions, a conference committee will have to iron them out before the final version goes to the president. “It is natural and normal that it creates certain fears,” Sarkozy said about the reform. “And it is also normal and natural that a democratic government in a parliamentary democracy assures that drivers find fuel.” (CNN)
Jean-François Copé, the leader of the legislators of the ruling party in the National Assembly, said on Wednesday that this was “the week of truth” on the pension reform and emphasized “the cohesion of the majority and the government” about the change, saying, “there is no other solution to save our pension system.” (New York Times) He then criticized the opposition Socialist Party for promoting the demonstrations without a viable legislative alternative and for calling students, whose weeklong school holiday starts on Friday, into the streets. And he said he was scandalized that “a handful of people have taken the economy of our country hostage by blocking the fuel depots.” (New York Times)
The Prime Minister, François Fillon, said in the National Assembly that the protests would fade once the law is in place. He cited other pension reforms in 1993, 2003 and 2007, that had also prompted protests, but “progressively became the law of republic, accepted by a very large majority of our citizens.” He added that “social confrontation is part of our democracy, but social consensus is, as well.” (New York Times)
President Sarkozy’s poll ratings appear to have dropped even further as he tries to tackle the wave of protests. One poll for BVA conducted on October 15 and 16 suggested his approval rating was down to 30%, the lowest for three years. The number of French with either a negative or very negative opinion of their president rose five points from September to 69%.