France hit by new wave of strikes over pension reforms

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Almost half a million people have taken to the streets of France in a sixth national day of action against planned pension reforms, officials say.

Strikes have hit transport and education, 4,000 petrol stations have run dry and police have clashed with protesters in several cities.

Shops were looted in Lyon and cars were set on fire in a Paris suburb.

President Nicolas Sarkozy appealed for calm but insisted he would press ahead with plans to raise the retirement age.

Strikes are disrupting travel and schools, a refinery blockade is hitting fuel supplies, and protesters and police have clashed in several cities.

The government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67.

President Nicolas Sarkozy insists he will press ahead with pension reforms.

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

"I thought carefully before I decided to go ahead with pension reform. It had been put on hold for too long and could not be put on hold any longer.

"It was a difficult, complex choice, but it was my duty."

But with the Senate due for a final vote this week, protests are planned in more than 200 towns and cities.

Protests on Monday turned violent in some areas.

The plans are deeply unpopular with the public.

Left-wing senators have submitted hundreds of amendments in an attempt to delay the vote, although it is now expected to go ahead on Thursday.

Fuel crisis

Tuesday is France's sixth national day of protests since early September.

In Paris, tens of thousands of marchers have set off from the Place d'Italie. Police put the numbers at 60,000 but one of the unions said it was 330,000

By midday, the interior ministry said the number of protesters across the country was 480,000, slightly lower than the half million figure at midday the previous week.

On that day, organisers estimated that a total of 3.5 million people had taken to the streets, setting a new record. Police put the figure at 1.2 million.

The BBC's Christian Fraser, in Paris, says there is a feeling that the demonstration could turn angry, with a noticeable change in atmosphere since last week.

Ahead of the march there were clashes for a second day between students and police in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Police fired tear gas to break up angry youths. There were also clashes outside Paris, in Lyon and Mulhouse.

Nationally, renewed strikes and an ongoing week-long blockade of France's 12 oil refineries are expected to hit transport networks as well as private fuel supplies.

One in two flights in and out of Paris's Orly airport have been cancelled and 30% of flights at other airports have been affected.

Train operator SNCF said it expected 60% of trains to run on Tuesday, the Le Monde newspaper reported, with Metro and local trains around Paris also expected to keep some services running.

Despite the disruption, one opinion poll on Monday suggested that 71% of those surveyed supported the strikers, despite the increasing effect on people's lives.

There was more opposition among those travelling as the strikes began.

"We shouldn't think it's still acceptable to stop working at 60 years old - we should work until 65. Like other European countries we have to work longer than 60 years," insurance worker Frederic Deraed told the BBC's Matthew Price in Lille.

"It's completely useless," said housewife Nadine Gestas.

"We can't pay the pensions and we can't avoid increasing the age of retirement. Every country in Europe is raising the age of retirement."

But Olivier Sekai of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) said he saw support increasing for the protests.

"The government is acting as if we didn't have a rich country, as if we didn't have the money. The thing is we do have the money," he told the BBC.

Crisis cabinet

The week-long fuel crisis has added a new dimension to France's public discontent.

One in four supermarket petrol stations are said to have run dry or are on the verge of closing.

Oil company Exxon Mobil has described the situation as "critical". Diesel supplies around Paris or western Nantes would be scarce, a spokeswoman said.

Severe shortages have been reported in Brittany in north-west France, and the International Energy Agency says that France has begun tapping into its three-month emergency fuel reserves.

Panic-buying has been blamed for a 50% increase in fuel sales.

Lorry drivers joined the protests on Monday, staging a go-slow on motorways around several cities.

Dozens of oil tankers are anchored off the coast of Marseille because of a strike at two Mediterranean oil ports and, inside the city, rubbish has piled up because of a strike by refuse collectors.

Mr Sarkozy has ordered key ministers to form a crisis cabinet with the role of ensuring the continuity of fuel supplies.

The head of the French Petrol Industries Association, Jean-Louis Schilansky, has said fuel shortages are not yet at crisis point.

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