French protesters disrupt airport access

Workers opposed to a higher retirement age have blocked roads to airports around France, leaving passengers in Paris dragging suitcases on foot along an emergency breakdown lane.

Protesters clash with police as tensions rise

Workers opposed to a higher retirement age blocked roads to airports around France on Wednesday, leaving passengers in Paris dragging suitcases on foot along an emergency breakdown lane.

Outside the capital, groups of protesters smashed store windows amid clouds of tear gas.

Riot police in black body armour forced striking workers away from blocked fuel depots in western France, restoring gasoline to areas where pumps were dry after weeks of protests over the government proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Travellers make their way to the Orly airport, south of Paris, after workers blocked vehicle access to the airport on Wednesday. ((Thibault Camus/Associated Press))

After months of largely peaceful disruptions, many protests erupted into violence this week over the government's push to raise the retirement age. President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed his conservative party would pass the reform in a Senate vote expected Thursday.

Many workers feel the change would be a first step in eroding France's social benefits, which include long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidized health-care system.

Sarkozy said Wednesday he would "carry the retirement reform through to the end." And despite France's tolerance for a long tradition of strikes and protest, official patience appeared to be waning after weeks of snarled traffic, cancelled flights and dwindling gasoline supplies and, now, rising urban violence.

Protesters block airports

Protesters waving red union flags and reflective vests temporarily blocked the main road leading to one of two terminals at the Orly airport on Wednesday. The ADP airport authority warned on its website of "serious difficulties expected in access to airports and air traffic."

The protests tangled traffic to the airport and some passengers walked hundreds of metres along an emergency lane to get there, dragging suitcases behind them. In one terminal, screens showed that 10 of 52 flights Wednesday afternoon were cancelled.

Lionel Philippe arrived at Orly after much difficulty because of protesters blocking access to the airport, only to find his flight to Biarritz cancelled.

He said he wasn't interested in the pension reform debate, he just wants to get home.

"I'm 28, by the time I retire everything will have changed anyway," he said.

At the Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, the nation's biggest, protesters sang the French national anthem before pushing through a police barricade.

"It is like we are on another planet," said Canadian traveller Olivier Lejour, waiting to take off from Charles de Gaulle. He said it was "fun" to watch, but that the protests disrupted his efforts to work in Paris.

A man holds a placard reading 'Listen to the Public's Rage' during a demonstration in front of the French Senate in Paris on Wednesday. ((Charles Platiau/Reuters))

The CGT Transport union says protests also shut down the Clermont-Ferrand airport in the south and disrupted airports in Nice and Nantes.

With nearly a third of France's gas stations dry, authorities stepped in overnight to force open three fuel depots blocked by striking workers for days, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

At one site in the western town of Donges, police formed a corridor along the road leading to the depot to allow trucks to pass in and out. Video footage showed officers peacefully herding striking workers away from one depot.

Hortefeux warned that the blockades threatened emergency services and could have grave consequences for the entire French economy and public health and safety.

"The right to strike does not give anyone the right to prevent people from working or the right to block things, or the right to prevent travel," Hortefeux said.

Hortefeux warned rioters that "the right to protest is not the right to break things, the right to set things on fire, the right to assault, the right to pillage."

"We will use all means necessary to get these delinquents," including the GIGN paramilitary police, he said. The police deployed so far have been CRS riot police, helmeted and wielding shields, sometimes firing tear gas or rubber bullets.

Over the past week, 1,423 people have been detained for protest-related violence, he said, more than a third of them Tuesday. Of those, 123 are facing legal action. He said he ordered police to look at video surveillance to find more perpetrators, suggesting more arrests could be ahead.

He said 62 police officers have been injured in the violence over the past week.

In Nanterre on Wednesday morning, about 100 students blocked the school entrance and part of the highway in front of the school, while a "tranquillity team" of about 30 adults in special red jackets sought to keep things calm.

Then about 100 other youths arrived and started darting through the town streets, smashing store windows and throwing stones. Some store owners lowered metal blinds to avoid looting. Nine police vans were parked in the surrounding area.

In the city of Lyon, new clashes broke out Wednesday, with rioters running down streets, throwing projectiles and setting off flares. Police responded with tear gas.

This week's clashes revived memories of student unrest in 2006 that forced the government to abandon another highly unpopular labour bill. The spectre of 2005 riots that spread through poor housing projects nationwide with disenfranchised immigrant populations is never far away.

Students plan new protests Thursday, with a demonstration in Paris hours before the Senate is expected to approve the retirement measure.

Strikes continued Wednesday at the SNCF national rail network, and one in three TGV high-speed train was cancelled.