Tuesday, for the second time in seven days, more than 3.5 million people turned out in militant demonstrations across France. Led by workers and students, the protests demanded defeat of legislation to raise the retirement age for pensions in the state and private sectors. The Parliament was scheduled to act on Wednesday but postponed the vote till later in the week.
In addition to the demonstrations, oil workers and longshore workers continued strikes that shut down all 12 of France's oil refineries. Gas and diesel shortages were reported in hundreds of gas stations, including hours long lines of anxious motorists hoping to fill their tanks. An estimated 2500 of Frances 12,000 gas stations reported running out of some or all of their product.
Truck drivers blocked major highways and intersections around the country with slow moving caravans. Airline and rail workers continued rolling job actions causing major air and rail transportation disruptions. Unions reported additional stoppages in construction, armored car and security, infrastructure and chemical sectors. Rolling strike action also hit public sectors including garbage removal, teachers and school workers.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes in the demonstrations is the marked increase in youth and student participation. Over 1100 schools were shut down for the demonstrations as students joined marches and rallies. This compares to some 300 shut down in last week's protests. Polling shows parental support for the student involvement, citing fear for their children's futures. In some areas the student built physical barriers to block intersections and highways. Riot police have clashed with the students in several places. A 16 year old, Geoffery Tidjani was struck in the eye by a rubber bullet and may lose it.
Labor and left activists in France note that the protest go far beyond the issue of pension reform. As a labor expert put it, "maybe we are witnessing a more global rejection that goes beyond the pension reform to a rejection of the government." This at a time when Nicolas Sarkozy and his government's popularity are at all time lows. This 18 months before presidential elections. Polls show that if the election were held today the left would win.
Several labor leaders are saying that the actions are about a more general feeling of rising anger. Workers feel they are being forced to bear the brunt of the economic crisis while the corporations and the rich continue with their lavish free spending lifestyles.
While the French protests are the largest and are getting the most attention worldwide, protest movements and anger are growing all over Europe. In Greece riot police used tear gas to break up a strike by culture ministry workers who has shut down the Acropolis, Greece's top tourist attraction, for three days last week. In Prague there were large street protests against government efforts to cut unemployment benefits, halt infrastructure projects, and cut public sector wages by 10%. In Italy thousands of students and teachers protested planned cuts in education. And in Britain the coalition government has just announced plans for drastic cuts that will result in the loss of 500,000 public sector jobs. Needless to say the unions are discussing "industrial action."
Photo: Demonstration in Amiens, France. Jean-Marie Faucillon correspondent of l'Humanité, www.humanite.fr