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High school students fuel protests in France

Lauter is a special correspondent.

Camille Maupas, a 14-year-old high school student, stood in the middle of a major intersection in the center of Paris, took a deep breath, smiled and sat down.

So did about 150 fellow students, who spontaneously decided to block the intersection at Rue de Rivoli and Rue du Renard, causing a traffic jam near City Hall on Monday, to protest against a government plan to raise the retirement age.

With no pension at stake, the students are a worrisome wild card in the eyes of the government, and a recent addition to an intensifying protest movement against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to help reduce the state deficit by forcing workers to legally retire at 62, instead of 60.

Students have blocked entrances to their schools with large objects, and on Monday some youths clashed with riot police and burned cars. The violence was blamed on youths who are not part of the student protest.

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As authorities prepared for another national strike Tuesday, a larger swath of the population was already feeling the effect of nearly a week of continuous strikes by workers, especially in the energy sector, who were joined early Monday by truck drivers who blocked major roads around France, driving at a snail’s pace in “escargot operations.”

Despite government assurances, fears of gasoline shortages pushed drivers to fill up their tanks, causing more than 1,000 of France’s 12,500 gas stations to temporarily run dry.

“The most serious concern is fuel,” said Richard Laisne, 58, a Paris taxi driver. “Because if there’s a fuel problem, there’s no work for me.” He said he filled up his tank Sunday.

Government leaders continue to assure the public that there was no reason to fear a shortage, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Sunday, “I won’t let our country be blocked.”

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A spokesman for the Energy Ministry said trucks were on their way to restock gas stations out of fuel.

Flight cancellations and delays are expected Tuesday as airport and public transport workers plan to strike. The government again advised airlines to reduce the number of flights they have planned to Paris and to arrive with their fuel tanks as full as possible, despite insisting there was no risk of fuel shortages at France’s major airports.

With striking workers blocking roads, trains, gasoline depots and refineries, there could be a long delay before hard-hit gas stations are able to function normally.

A crisis unit was created Monday by the Interior Ministry, and key gasoline depots and pipelines have been unblocked by authorities, who said they did not use force. Days after certain depots were opened, others were blocked by new protesters Monday. Workers at all of France’s 12 oil refineries are on strike too.

The Senate is expected to pass the retirement overhaul bill by Thursday or Friday, but protesters say they will continue striking.

“It’s a political success. Everyone is involved,” said Josiane Jousset, 62, of the strikes. “The government got a good slap in the face.”

Media coverage of the student protests showed images of burned cars and shattered storefront windows and glass walls at bus stations in various towns across France, and were reminiscent of 2005 riots in the country’s low-income suburbs.

In the center of Paris, participants said their intentions were peaceful.

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“We are pacifists. We just want to be heard,” said Hugo Behar, 16.

Though the Sarkozy government contends that the French need to work longer in order to finance future pensions, Hugo said the retirement change would mean fewer jobs for younger people, because aging employees wouldn’t be able to leave their posts open for the next generation. “I don’t want to be out of work at 30,” he said.

“We aren’t doing this to get out of class.... We hope to prevent the vote” in favor of pension overhaul, said Camille, the 14-year-old student.

Lauter is a special correspondent.


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