Violent turn to French strikes could backfire on union protesters

French strikes over pension reforms turned violent today as hard-line elements from an oil-workers union vowed to press on.

Thibault Camus/AP
A man holds a French flag and a poster reading 'should the power be fair, we will be happy' during a mass demonstration in Paris, Tuesday. The protesters are trying to prevent the French parliament from approving a bill that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Strikes and protests in France were inconclusive on a day that was expected to help determine the strength of a movement against pension reform that has become a visceral harangue against the Sarkozy administration.

But brinkmanship by hard-core oil refinery workers, who say they will not relent until the government abandons its plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, is raising concern among small business leaders, trucking firms, and airport administrators. A crisis meeting was called at the French Élysée Palace today to address the problem of energy shortages.

Some 4,000 of 12,500 gas stations are now out of fuel, said Jean-Louis Borloo, the French energy minister. Jet fuel shortages and airport and Air France staff walkouts brought cancellations to 30 percent of international flights and 50 percent of domestic flights across the country, Agence France-Presse reports. The transport branch of the CGT labor union vowed to blockade French airports on Wednesday.

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French police today reported slightly more than 1 million marchers around the country, with increased activity in cities like Toulouse, Rennes, and Marseilles. In Paris, a smaller, peaceful crowd dutifully marched.

However, mixed bands of young people – some pension protesters, some rioting without an evident interest in politics – took on police in tear-gas battles in several cities, such as Lyon and Nanterre, where cars were burned and a trade and labor court was ransacked.

A violent turn

Some analysts say a violent turn to the protest could work to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s favor if a majority of citizens turn fearful. But so far the number of violent incidents is far short of youth riots in 2006.

Mr. Sarkozy has the parliamentary votes needed to pass a pension reform bill this week – designed to put the French system more in line with other nations, as French live longer. But with 71 percent of the nation sympathetic with the strikers, according to polls, it may be a Pyrrhic victory for the French president – regardless of the outcome.

Strategically it appears the protesters are seeking to use a minimum of street power but to achieve a maximum of economic strangulation.

Air France union member Louis-Marine Barnier, in the Paris protest today, told a reporter that, “We must look for a new form of movement. Blocking the economy is a new thing. We have the support of 70 percent of French, and we can block the economy with 10 percent of the workers.”

'A trial of strength'

Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hanan called today’s rallies “a trial of strength.” Yet the ardor of many marchers may be cooling as some say they will wait until elections in 2012 to vote against Sarkozy rather than go to the barricades now.

Mr. Sarkozy, in Deauville today for a German-French-Russian meeting to explore a path to a tighter Russian-European bloc, vows to continue the reform, which he described as “essential.”

“France is committed to it and France will go ahead with it just as our German partners did a few years ago,” he stated. In 2007 the German Bundestag voted to gradually raise the full benefits retirement age from 65 to 67; the French, with a much higher birth rate than the Germans, will raise full benefits from 65 to 67 more quickly, along with raising the minimum retirement age to 62.

RELATED: Europe's 5 most generous pension systems

Many protesters in Paris today expressed anger with the French and international press for ignoring what they say are serious protests and work stoppages in rural France. Many high school students from outside the city, marching peacefully, said they were upset at media caricatures of them as naïve or manipulated by leftist politicians.

At the gilded dome of the Invalides in Paris where the protest march ended, a union member of the French library system, who gave her name as Annie, said she was marching against “a way of life of our politicians” that is out of touch with ordinary people. But, she said, she was “not optimistic” that the protest movement would succeed.

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