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French strike gains momentum

Lauter is a special correspondent.

A national strike to protest French government plans to raise the retirement age gained momentum Tuesday, thanks to broader participation by education, energy and transportation workers, augmented by high school students.

Flights were canceled, train service was spotty and even the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors, as protesters expressed their displeasure with the move to raise the official retirement age from 60 to 62.

The Interior Ministry estimated that 1.23 million people took part in the job actions; union representatives placed the figure at 3.5 million.

“After today, I think the government won’t have a choice but to go back on its decision,” said Eric Aubin, a leader of the CGT, one of France’s largest unions, who is in charge of organizing opposition to the government’s retirement plan.

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Train, subway and bus drivers voted to continue their walkout Wednesday, and another strike has been set for Saturday.

Though the Senate will continue debating the proposal this week, the upper house has already voted in favor of the most controversial aspects of the plan, such as increasing the age to receive a full pension from 65 to 67.

The revision has become a centerpiece of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to balance a budget hit by the economic crisis.

Protesters say that even after the law is enacted, enough street pressure could still reverse any decision by lawmakers.

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But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said his government was determined to continue with a plan he calls necessary, because of lengthening life expectancy and an indebted pension system.

“We are determined to bring this reform to its conclusion,” he said at the National Assembly.

Fillon called left-leaning groups “irresponsible” for encouraging high school students to participate in the national strike.

In 2006, university and high school students led lengthy protests against plans to make it easier to fire employees, and the government backed down.

Ninety high schools in France were blocked off with garbage cans and other objects. With teachers on strike as well, about 360 of the 4,302 schools were affected by the protest.

Augustin Volle, 15, strode toward the Place de la Bastille in Paris with classmates from the Montaigne High School. He awkwardly took puffs from a cigarette being passed around.

“We’ve been up since 7:30, because we had to block the school,” he said. “Otherwise other students would have to go to class, and wouldn’t be able to protest.”

Students formed human chains at the school entrance and remained there for hours, the teen said.

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“I’m afraid of being unemployed and not finding work,” said university student Hadrien Chneiweiss, 20, who wants to be a history teacher. “This reform would mean fewer jobs for us, and unemployment is already high.”

Though accustomed to France’s frequent strikes, many people were not happy about the day’s disruptions.

“I don’t understand what use comes out of these strikes.... It just blocks the whole population,” said Haja Razafindratsima, a 25-year-old waitress. She said she had to leave for work hours early.


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