Paris: France braced for another day of public sector strikes and protests on Wednesday against unpopular pension reforms which are expected to be put before the Senate for a final vote later this week.
Trade unions riding a wave of voter support are pushing to force President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces an election in 18 months, to retreat on plans to lift the retirement age to 62 from 60. So far the government has stood firm even in the face of a fuel shortage caused by striking refinery workers.
At least one million people demonstrated across France on Tuesday, the sixth such day of national protest since June and a sign of the most persistent challenge to economic reforms being enacted across recession-hit Europe.
Sporadic outbreaks of violence flared on the fringes of some marches, notably in the southeastern city of Lyon, raising concerns for the authorities that small groups of agitators were trying to hijack the predominantly peaceful protests.
Most political analysts expect the reforms to pass into law and for the dissent to gradually fizzle out. After 24-hour stoppages hit the rail and aviation networks on Tuesday, Wednesday’s industrial action was likely to be less severe, however fuel shortages were a major problem.
Nearly one in three of the country’s 12,500 petrol stations were dry or running short, forcing the government to tap strategic reserves. Prime Minister Francois Fillion has promised fuel distribution will be back to normal within days.
“For us in the taxi trade, no fuel means no income and that means no food,” Jean Gannichia, head of a taxi federation in the southern port city of Marseille, told LCI television.
Marseille has been one of the centres of a protest movement that has strangled oil refineries and fuel distribution depots.
UNIONS TO FIGHT ON
Unions have vowed to continue open-ended strikes on the railways although the SNCF state rail company predicted some services, such as international links, would run near to normal.
In addition to continued strikes at the railways and at the oil refineries, freight truck and delivery van drivers have said they will continue protests that include motorway go-slows.
The national aviation authority thought there would be only limited disruption on Wednesday by industrial action after Tuesday saw 30-50 percent of short-haul flights cancelled.
Albert Doutre, an official in charge of urban security in Lyon, said police reinforcements were being drafted in to raise officer numbers up to 800 on Wednesday from 500 after Tuesday’s violence, which he termed “a veritable phenomenon of urban guerrilla warfare”.
Some 75 people were arrested after stone-throwing youths torched about 30 vehicles in the city centre.