Clashes, protests in French tensions over pensions

By The Associated Press

PARIS – Police used tear gas and water cannon against rampaging youth in Lyon on Thursday while the French government showed its muscle in parliament, short-circuiting tense Senate debate on a bill raising the retirement age to 62.

Despite growing pressure, President Nicolas Sarkozy held firm on a measure he says is crucial to the future of France, heightening the standoff with labor unions that see retirement at 60 as a hard-earned right.

Weeks of protests have left at least a quarter of the nation’s gas stations on empty, blocked hundreds of ships at the Mediterranean port of Marseille and even forced Lady Gaga to cancel Paris concerts.

Violence on the margins of student protests have added a new dimension to the volatile mix.

A march in Paris by at least 4,000 students was peaceful, but new violence broke out in Lyon, where police used water cannon and tear gas to hold back rampaging youths hurling bottles and overturning at least one car.

“It is not troublemakers who will have the last word in a democracy,” Sarkozy told local officials in central France, promising to find and punish rioters. He accused strikers of “taking the economy, businesses, daily life hostage.”

The tough talk extended to parliament where the government short-circuiting a protracted debate on the retirement bill by ordering Senators to vote on a package of its own design.

Labor Minister Eric Woerth, announcing the decision to call upon Article 44-3 of the Constitution, explained there would be a single vote this week on a package — and no voting on the remaining 250 of some 1,000 amendments.

The final text was expected to be adopted next week by both houses.