French Protests Spread Over Raising Retirement Age to 62

Biggest protest yet engulfs 250 cities and towns across France.

PARIS Oct. 19, 2010— -- Demonstrators have taken to the streets of nearly 250 cities and towns across France today expressing their outrage over a government plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The protests were the biggest so far in a series of demonstrations that have wracked the country in recent days.

A vote on the plan, expected Wednesday, to raise the retirement age is the centerpiece of President Nicolas Sarkozy's long-promised economic reform. But leftist politicians offered more than a thousand amendments postponing the vote until at least Thursday evening.

On Monday night, Sarkozy, who was meeting with his German and Russian counterparts in the northern town of Deauville, remained defiant.

"The reform is essential and France is committed to it and will go ahead with it," Sarkozy declared.

This year the French pension system faces a 32 billion euro deficit, and Sarkozy has promised to make it solvent again by 2018.

This is the sixth national strike since Sept. 7 and it brought even more disruptions to air, train and car travel across France as workers from every sector walked off the job.

Half of the flights were cancelled at Paris' Orly airport and at France's busiest airport, Charles de Gaulle, 30 percent of flights were disrupted because striking airport workers, including air traffic controllers. Trains nationwide were running at about 50 percent of capacity.

Fuel shortages worsened as oil workers continued their blockade of France's 12 oil refineries. Some 2,500 gas stations across the country have run dry and there are reports that panic buying in some locations has raised fuel consumption as much as 50 percent.

Last Friday the government gave the go-ahead to gas producers to reach into the 30 day emergency reserve to offset the shortages caused by closed refineries and the strike at France's busiest commercial port in Marseille.

Truck drivers have joined the strike, making it may cause even further disruptions. One official who manages France's emergency gas reserves says he expects the protests to die down after the vote Thursday, but added "you never know. This is France. I've been surprised before."

French Retirement Protests Spread to Schools

The ongoing demonstrations have sparked other protests and violence. High school students in the Paris suburbs clashed with police who responded with tear gas. Nearly a thousand schools have been disrupted by student walkouts and one high school in Le Mans, west of Paris, was destroyed by fire.

With most French citizens supporting the strikes, Sarkozy may be paying the highest price. The president has sought to portray himself as a bold reformer, but the protests and his handling of the crisis could leave his administration politically hobbled until elections in May 2012.

A poll taken Oct. 6 and 7 shows Sarkozy's approval rating at just 31 percent, the lowest since his election in 2007.