Sarkozy pledges crackdown as protesters turn to violence
France was plunged into a new level of chaos by protest strikes yesterday with hundreds of flights cancelled, huge queues at filling stations and train services cut by half.
The demonstrations dramatically upped the ante on the beleaguered President Sarkozy, locked in a bitter showdown over plans to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62.
Yesterday events turned violent, with masked youths fighting with police and starting fires in cities across France.
Undaunted by the pressure, Mr Sarkozy pledged to crack down on "troublemakers" and guaranteed public order.
But in a worrying indication that he saw no immediate end to the impasse, Mr Sarkozy raised the possibility of more confrontations with rioters after a week of disruptive but largely non-violent demonstrations.
Mr Sarkozy also promised to ensure that fuel was available to everyone. Around 4,000 filling stations were dry with long queues at others.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said oil companies agreed to pool stocks to get supplies flowing.
"The government will continue to dislodge protesters blocking the fuel depots . . . no one has the right to take hostage an entire country, its economy and its jobs," he said.
The protesters are trying to prevent the French parliament from approving the new retirement age aimed at helping prevent the pension system from going bankrupt.
The measure is expected to be passed this week, although plans to move it through tomorrow have been delayed in the wake of political attempts to derail it.
Many workers feel the change would be a dangerous step in eroding France's social benefits -- which include long holidays, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidised healthcare system -- in favour of "American-style capitalism".
In Paris yesterday, huge crowds marched toward the gilded-domed Invalides. Police estimated the crowd at 60,000, down from 65,000 at a similar march last week.
At a school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre youths started throwing stones from a bridge at police, who responded with tear gas.
At the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris youths pelted riot police while in Lyon they set fire to rubbish bins and were met with clouds of police tear gas.
Up to half of flights out of Paris' Orly airport were scrapped yesterday, and a third of those from other French airports, including the country's largest, Charles de Gaulle, serving Paris, were cancelled.
Most were short and medium-haul domestic and inter-European flights. The walkout by air traffic controllers was expected to last one day, with flights expected to return to normal today.