, PARIS, Oct 12 – French students joined workers in the streets Tuesday as the bitter battle against President Nicolas Sarkozy\’s plan to up the retirement age to 62 escalated and strikers threatened to prolong stoppages.
"Sarko, you\’re screwed, the young are on the streets," chanted students in the southwestern town of Toulouse as they marched beside workers on the fourth major nationwide demonstration against pension reform in just over a month.
The interior ministry said 500,000 demonstrators were marching in towns and cities around the country by midday, even before the main Paris march started in the afternoon, many more than at the same time on the previous protest.
Students and school pupils broadened the movement and their participation — along with threats by some workers to make their strikes open-ended — was seen as an escalation of what has become the biggest battle in Sarkozy\’s presidency.
As a huge march snaked its way though the streets of Paris near the national assembly, Prime Minister Francois Fillon defended the pension plans during a rowdy parliamentary session.
"We are determined to carry through this reform," he stated, and he slammed as "irresponsible" what he said was a bid by the far left and some opposition Socialists to "put kids of 15 on the streets" to join the protests.
Operations at 11 of France\’s 12 mainland oil refineries were disrupted and 56 tankers were stuck waiting off the Mediterranean port of Marseille as petrol and dock workers held an open-ended strike.
Travellers faced major delays, with up to half the flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at the capital\’s international hub Charles de Gaulle-Roissy and the smaller Paris Beauvais cancelled.
Just one in three TGV high-speed trains was running, although Eurostar trains between Paris and London operated normally. Paris commuter and metro trains were also hit as transport workers walked off the job.
Strike action also forced the closure of Eiffel Tower, one of the world\’s most popular tourist sites.
Students at around 400 high schools across the country built barricades with plastic wheelie bins or used other methods to try to prevent other pupils attending classes, the education ministry said.
"I\’m prepared to prolong the strike. I started working at 17 and now I\’m 50 and I\’m starting to get really fed up with it," said a demonstrator in the southwestern town of Angouleme, who said he worked for the Lafarge cement firm.
A CSA opinion poll said 69 percent of French people back the strike, with 61 percent in favour of more open-ended industrial action.
The government is hoping the demonstrations will fizzle out after Tuesday\’s marches and strikes, but it is also worried that the anti-reform movement might become more radical and trigger riots alongside the so-far peaceful marches.
Meanwhile, the reform bill is edging closer to becoming law.
Late on Monday, French senators definitively passed a key measure, raising the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67. Both houses of parliament have already approved hiking the retirement age from 60 to 62.
That is the most hotly contested measure in the package which Sarkozy says could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030 at a time when France\’s public deficit — at around eight percent of GDP — is well above the eurozone target of three percent.
Unions and opposition politicians say the plan puts an unfair burden on workers and have made alternative proposals to fix the deficit.
Pensions are a key plank in Sarkozy\’s reform agenda as he eyes reelection in 2012.
The president, whose poll ratings are at their lowest since he came to power in 2007, last week allowed minor amendments to the bill but insists it will go through largely unchanged.
The Senate\’s deliberations are to last until Friday and the government hopes for the reform to be approved by the end of the month.