France Shut-down Over Retirement Age Battle

French unions step up pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy to cave in on pension reform, calling for more mass strikes and street protests as parts of the country start to run dry following fuel blockades.

The call for workers to join two new days of nationwide demonstrations next Thursday and on November 6 came after another day of unrest across France that saw protestors blocking key sites and clashing with police.

"Strengthened by the support of workers, the young and a majority of the population... the labour organisations have decided to continue and to broaden the mobilisation," the main unions said in a joint statement.

More than a million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the sixth day of action since early September, to protest the plan to raise the standard minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and full pension age from 65 to 67.

With no fuel left in more than a quarter of France's petrol pumps, police are playing what unions dubbed a game of cat and mouse with protestors at refineries and fuel depots in a bid to prevent the country grinding to a halt.

Even US pop star Lady Gaga called off two Paris concerts set for the weekend "as a result of the logistical difficulties due to the strikes in France," her website said, "as there is no certainty that the trucks can make it."

Sarkozy earlier Thursday accused trade union leaders of undermining France's fragile economic recovery.

"By taking the French economy, businesses and daily life hostage, you will destroy jobs," he said.

"We can't be the only country in the world where, when there's a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else. That's not possible. That's not democracy," he declared, vowing tough action against rioters.

Workers in key sectors have been on strike for more than a week to protest the reform, which the government says is essential to reduce France's public deficit. Unions and political opponents say it penalises workers.

Youths have been fighting running battles with riot police in several cities, and on Thursday a schoolgirl was taken to hospital during clashes with police outside a high school in the central city of Poitiers.

Police in Lyon fired tear gas when a group of around 200 high school students tried to join a demonstration by CGT unionists. Students threw objects at riot police and plain clothes officers who tried to keep the groups apart.

Police have arrested children as young as 10 at the demonstrations, some of whom have been tried in juvenile courts.

Thousands of young people joined spontaneous mass demonstrations around the country. "We would have burnt this reform but there's no petrol left," read one banner waved by students in Bordeaux.

Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours Thursday before being cleared by police, causing tailbacks of several kilometres (miles).

Troops were sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where garbage collectors are on strike, while a similar strike in Toulouse intensified on Thursday, with workers blocking access to dumps.

The country's 12 oil refineries have been closed down by strikes. Road transport federation FNTR said its members were struggling, and that even fuel trucks would soon be off the roads because of a lack of diesel.

Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told the Senate that 2,790 petrol stations had run out of fuel, out of 12,300 nationwide, down from 3,190 on Wednesday.

Three-quarters of express TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, but only half of provincial trains were operating.

The pension law has been passed by the National Assembly and is slowly working its way through the Senate, which could pass it on Friday.

The government asked the Senate on Thursday to shorten its voting procedures on the remaining 254 amendments in the hope of getting the bill voted on before the weekend after a week of debate.


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