Posted on October 20, 2010

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France braces for riots as protests turn violent

Riot police charge at student demonstrators in Lyon yesterday
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A menacing new spectre hung over the French pension reform dispute yesterday – the threat of a re-run of the multi-racial suburban riots of five years ago.
As petrol shortages spread and the country braced for a new day of strikes and marches today, there were violent incidents and clashes between police and youths in a dozen cities and suburbs around France.
Although the incidents occurred on the fringes of demonstrations by Lycée (sixth-form) students, most of the violence came from roaming groups of hooded youths who were not directly involved in the protests against pension reform. Cars were turned over or burned and shops looted and smashed in Nanterre, west of Paris, and in Saint Denis, north of the capital, which was the starting point of the riots of October and November 2005.
There were also violent incidents on the edges of student demonstrations in other Paris suburbs and in Lyon, Rouen, Roubaix and Nantes. In all cases, both police and student leaders blamed independent, mobile, racially-mixed groups of casseurs – or “vandals” – who were not part of the pension protests themselves. Their motives were unclear, but similar violence by disaffected youths has erupted on the edges of other peaceful student protests in France in recent years.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets and arrested almost 200 young people in more than a dozen incidents across the country. The government – already facing a disruptive pension reform protest by unions and Lycée students – will be desperate to avoid the kind of violent police response which could touch off more serious rioting in the tense multi-racial suburbs of French cities.
Yesterday’s incidents, though none very serious in themselves, added to the sense of a nation spiralling into a multi-layered crisis. Over 3,000 – out of 13,000 – French petrol stations ran out of fuel yesterday after panic-buying by motorists intensified. Eleven out of 12 petrol refineries remained on strike. Flying pickets blocked a score of petrol distribution depots. Others were opened up by police.
A chain of pickets defeated attempts by the authorities to reopen a refinery at Grandpuits, east of Paris. Key employees were ordered to return to work under the threat of legal action but pickets from the refinery and other industries blocked entrances to the site.
There were also sporadic blockages and go-slows by small convoys of lorries on the principal French motorways.
All of these actions are part of an “unofficial” second front opened by militant union branches against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 by 2018. At least 3,000,000 people are expected to join demonstrations today, and many public sector workers to stop work for 24 hours, in a sixth union “day of action” in seven weeks.
The more moderate union federations want to continue their soft or “political” strategy of one-day protests to build public anger against Mr Sarkozy. They hope that that this will help to oust him in 2012. A centre-left president and government could then reverse the reform. But the moderate national union leadership fears that the harder-line, confrontational strategy of more militant unions branches could anger public opinion and present Mr Sarkozy with a moral victory.

Teenagers torch cars in France as riots turn violent


Clashes in Paris and Lyon

French strikes ablaze: Britons warned to stay away as violence spirals

A car explodes in flames and policemen clash with rioting youths as spiralling violence grips France.
This was one of many flashpoints across the country yesterday amid growing public anger against raising the retirement age to 62.
In the town of Nanterre, north-west of Paris, officers also fired rubber bullets and tear gas at youths protesting outside their secondary schools.
French police officers clash with rioters in Nanterre
Battle: The police officers clash with rioters in Nanterre, north-west of Paris. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas at youths protesting outside their secondary schools
Troublemakers – not students – were accused of starting a riot, pelting firemen with rocks as dozens of vehicles were smashed and set ablaze.
Meanwhile, British travellers were warned to stay away as trains, planes and motorways were brought to a halt ahead of today’s national strike.
More than 1,000 petrol stations ran dry as panic buying exacerbated a blockade of oil refineries ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote to approve the pension overhaul.
Rubbish mounts up in the streets of Marseille

Chaos: Rubbish mounts up in the streets of Marseille
However President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to back down in the face of growing opposition, with more than 70 per cent of people backing the strikers, according to yesterday’s Parisien newspaper.
‘If we must face a long strike, we’ll do it,’ he said. ‘A part of the country will be thankful that we brought the extremists to their knees.’
But union leaders remain equally intransigent. One at Total’s refineries said: ‘As long as the government won’t budge, we won’t budge.’
Yesterday, lorry drivers joined the anti-government action, organising 10mph ‘snail convoys’ to block major roads.
High school students damage a car during a demonstration in Lyon, France

High school students damage a car during a demonstration in Lyon, France
A traffic police spokesman said: ‘The situation cannot get worse. These roads are leading to the northern coast, so anyone travelling to and from Britain by car can expect chaos.
‘The lorry drivers are leaving one lane open, and then travelling at very low speed.
‘The knock-on effect on public transport is enormous.’
Bus and train drivers joined the growing unrest on Sunday night, causing half of the country’s high speed TGV trains to stop running.
Police detain students during a demonstration in Lyon

Police detain students during a demonstration in Lyon. There is growing public anger across France against raising the retirement age to 62
Eurostar services between London and Paris have so far been unaffected but trains between Belgium and the French capital were cancelled.
France’s civil aviation authority yesterday appealed to airlines to cut flights into French airports by 50 per cent as reserves of aviation fuel run dangerously low.
And wildcat strikes by aircraft refuelling workers caused other services to be cancelled or delayed.
But at least two long-haul flights from Paris – to Seattle in the U.S., and Mumbai in India – were forced to take off without enough fuel.
Strikers block fuel storage depots in Caen, northwestern France

Strikers block fuel storage depots in Caen, northwestern France, yesterday
They were both forced to stop en route to refuel.
And last night the European air traffic agency Eurocontrol called on airlines flying into France to carry sufficient fuel reserves for their return journey.
Militant oil refinery workers yesterday defied a government order to return to work with pickets forming a human chain to prevent strike-breakers from entering a plant at Grandpuits, east of Paris.
Jean-Louis Schilansky, president of the Petrol Industries Association, warned that the alliance of refinery workers and truckers would cause ‘a very big problem’.
The protests are in response to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age to from 60 to 62

The protests are in response to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to from 60 to 62
France has less than 100 days of oil stocks, according to International Energy Agency, and the government is already drawing the 30-day emergency reserves.
Millions of public sector workers are expected to march through Paris today at the climax of the anti-pension reform campaign.
The pensions reform, which includes raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, has already been approved by the National Assembly, France’s lower house.
But last night the crucial vote by France’s upper house, the Senate, to enshrine the bill into law, scheduled for Wednesday –was postponed until Thursday.
Many fear a re-run of the May 1968 riots in Paris when thousands took to the streets to try to bring down the government of President Charles de Gaulle.
Workers block traffic in Toulouse southern France

Workers block traffic in Toulouse, southern France

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