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French Protest Turmoil Continues


Youths clash with police during protests against pension reform in central city of Lyon.
France has been hit by another day of nationwide protests against plans to raise the retirement age -- with air travel, trains, shipping, postal services, and schools all severely affected as more than 1 million people took to the streets.

President Nicolas Sarkozy warned against "troublemakers" and pledged to ensure that "public order is guaranteed," as youth and police clashed in several cities. "In a democracy, everyone can express himself, but it must be done without violence and without excesses," he said.

France, like its fellow European Union members, is taking steps to control a ballooning budget deficit in the wake of the world financial crisis.

One important reform that Sarkozy's government is pushing through parliament would raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62 -- an economy seen as necessary to continue financing state pensions.

But, Sarkozy has been facing massive protests nationwide -- including a Paris rally on October 16 that drew at least 1 million people -- reflecting the public's fear that this is just the first assault of many against France's generous social-security system.

More than 200 protests were planned for the day of action on October 19, eventually drawing more than 1 million people.

A weeklong strike at refineries and blockades of fuel-distribution depots dried up supplies at hundreds of gas stations nationwide.

Speaking in Deauville at a summit with the leaders of Russia and Germany, Sarkozy made a pledge to restore supplies once he had returned to Paris.

"There are people who want to work -- it's even the immense majority -- and who cannot be deprived of gasoline," he said. "This cannot exist in a democracy."

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the government's fuel-resupply program would see the situation restored to normal by the end of the week.

Transport Disrupted, Some Violence

The French civil-aviation authority said up to half of flights out of Paris Orly Airport and 30 percent of flights at other airports would be canceled on October 19 due to strikes.

Truck drivers have been blocking highways in "go slow" protests, and hundreds of high schools have been disrupted by pupil protests.

Disruptions on the national railway continued, with some Paris subway lines running half their normal service.

In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, strikes by garbage collectors have left heaps of rubbish piled along city sidewalks.

Skirmishes between youths and police broke out in a number of cities.

Outside a secondary school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, youths burned a car and threw rocks at riot police, who responded with tear gas.

At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, young people pelted riot police with projectiles and torched garbage cans.

In the city of Lyon, police fired tear gas and arrested nine people after youths overturned cars and set one alight.

The Interior Ministry said more than 1,100 people had been arrested at demonstrations since the start of the week.

Labor unions are hoping for a repeat of events in 1995 and 2006, when they managed to defeat pension and labor reforms through prolonged strikes.

But Sarkozy has shown no sign of backing down. "This reform had been delayed for too long, and [it] cannot be delayed any more," he said. "Why? Because the pensions of today and tomorrow's retirees have to be paid."

Sarkozy explained, "There are 15 million retirees in France; at the minute I am speaking to you the pensions of 1.5 million of them are paid by bank loans."

The reform has been passed by the lower house and is now before France's Senate.

U.K. Vows Cuts

Britain is another European country struggling to cut its huge deficits and focusing on controversial defense reductions.

The government of Prime Minister David Cameron issued its strategic defense and security review on October 19.

Critics said the review was just a disguised way for the government to introduce cuts which they say will undermine the military's ability to perform its multiple tasks.

with agency reports
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