French protests intensify

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Widespread protests against plans to reform France's state pension system continued today. But the French president says he'll press ahead anyway. Nicolas Sarkozy wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. He says the change is essential. Many French citizens don't agree. Truck drivers and striking oil workers have been blockading roads and fuel depots. There have also been street protests, and some have turned violent. As Anita Elash reports, many of the protesters seem too young to be worried about retirement.

ANITA ELASH: Hundreds of middle and high school students demonstrating near the French Prime Minister's residence in Paris. They stand face to face with police officers in riot gear. Many of the students are in their early teens. But, as the banners they're carrying say, they insist that pension reform concerns them too. This is just one of hundreds of student protests against the government's planned pension reforms in the past week. Students have shut down at least a quarter of French high schools, staged sit-ins and held up traffic with spontaneous street demos. They say they plan to continue until the government abandons its proposal to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.


ELASH: Alexandre is just 13 years old. He wants to become a veterinarian. Like many of the students here, he says he's worried that if adults are forced to work longer, there will be fewer jobs available for young people.


ELASH: He says he'll have to study a long time and doesn't want to be out of work when he graduates. You have to think of the future, he adds. �It's not when you turn 35 and find yourself unemployed that you say, gee, I wish I had done something.� Student protests have a long history in France. The most famous, in May of 1968, forced then President Charles de Gaulle into hiding and sparked a cultural revolution. These current protests are clearly a huge worry for the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy insists he won't back down on his planned reforms. But he's dispatched several of his ministers and members of parliament to try to persuade the students to go back to school. Jean-Francois Cope heads Sarkozy's UMP party in the French National Assembly. He's one of many who accuse labor unions of trying to manipulate young people into joining the protests. He says the students don't understand what's at stake.


ELASH: He says he's very concerned because when students take to the streets, there's always a risk of serious problems. He says students should understand the reforms are being made for them. Students don't buy that argument. Pollster Jerome Sainte Marie says he's not surprised. His research shows that young people, along with laborers, are among the groups most opposed to the proposed reforms. He says that's partly because they're concerned about their future. Youth unemployment rates run as high as 25%. And it's partly because they just don't like President Sarkozy.


JEROME SAINTE MARIE: Anti-Sarkozy sentiment is extremely high among young people. They see him as part of a traditional society, closed to immigrants, rigid on questions like downloading music on the internet. So on every issue, he finds himself in the opposite camp.

ELASH: Sainte Marie says the youth protests do present a real threat to Sarkozy. He notes that youth demonstrators are difficult to control and often end up clashing with the police. There have already been violent incidents. This morning, police fired tear gas in a Paris suburb after teenagers set bus stops on fire and threw stones. Sainte Marie says that if the violence escalates, and someone is killed, the government would be forced to admit it has lost control. And it would have to abandon its pension reforms. For The World, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.