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More than a million protest French retirement change plans

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Police say 1.1 million people demonstrate, while unions put the number at 3.5 million
  • The prime minister holds an emergency meeting about fuel supplies
  • President Sarkozy says reform is "essential" and "France will implement it"
  • Protesters oppose a government measure that would raise the retirement age to 62

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Paris, France (CNN) -- Fanny Cottard didn't go to school Tuesday.

Instead, she and 50 high school classmates joined more than a million protesters on the streets of France, fighting government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and make other changes to the pension system.

She's only 16, so retirement might seem a long way off to her, but that's not how she sees it.

"It's about us too," she told CNN on the streets of Paris. "Our retirement will be in a long time, but it's still about us. We are supposed to change things and make a difference.

"We are not supposed to wait till we are 40 to start thinking about politics. You are supposed to care when you're young, because in two years I'm going to have to vote for our next president and I'm supposed to know about it," she said.

Video: French protest target oil industry
Video: French fuel pumps running dry
Video: French protesters point blame at Sarkozy

She and her classmates are planning to block their school in the western suburbs of Paris on Wednesday as a further sign of protest.

The government seems to be holding its nerve in the face of the strikes, with the Senate moving ahead with a vote on pension reform.

About 1.1 million people have demonstrated across the country, French media quoted police as saying. Unions put the figure at 3.5 million nationwide.

The rolling strike has been going on for more than a week now. About 1.23 million people demonstrated on the biggest day of protests, October 12, officials said.

Transportation, fuel supplies and education are taking a hit from the ongoing strikes over the proposed pension reforms.

The French Ministry of Education said students from 379 high schools are joining in the strikes, skipping school in the process. Some students have blocked schools so others cannot get in.

Students are worried they won't be able to get jobs themselves if workers in the current generation hang onto their jobs for an extra two years, some told CNN's Jim Bittermann in Paris.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the main proponent of pension reform, said it was "essential" and that "France will implement it."

French senators stayed in the chamber until 3 a.m. Tuesday, working their way through roughly 1,000 amendments to the pension reform bill. A final vote is due later this week.

The lower house of parliament has already passed it, by a vote of 329 to 233. If there are substantial differences between the Senate and National Assembly versions, a conference committee will have to iron them out before the final version goes to the president.

"It is natural and normal that it creates certain fears," Sarkozy said about the reform, "and it is also normal and natural that a democratic government in a parliamentary democracy assures that drivers find fuel."

Thousands of gas stations across the country have run dry as strikers block fuel deliveries, petroleum industry sources told CNN.

Some 1,500 of France's 4,800 supermarket fuel distributors are dry, Alexandre de Benoist, a spokesman for the Union of Independent Petroleum Importers, told CNN. The supermarket distributors make up 60 percent of all French fuel distributors.

A further 1,000 stations owned by Total have also run dry, a spokesman for the oil company told CNN. The company has 4,300 gas and diesel stations.

The exact number of gas stations without fuel is constantly changing as some run out of fuel and others get new deliveries.

Five thousand tanker trucks are engaged in re-supply efforts, French Minister of Transportation Dominique Bussereau told parliament Tuesday.

About 20 of the 219 oil terminals in the country are blocked, he said.

There was an emergency meeting at the prime minister's office Tuesday afternoon about fuel supplies, with the prime minister expected to brief the president after it ended, Bussereau said.

Earlier, de Benoist said strikers had blocked access to oil refineries and depots.

The two main Paris airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, had to cancel flights because air traffic controllers and other airport workers were among the strikers.

Half the flights from Orly airport were due to be canceled Tuesday because of the strikes, and 30 percent of flights from other airports in the city will be canceled, the French aviation authority announced Monday.

Both major airports are supplied by a pipeline that comes directly from refineries that were shut down Friday, according to Trapil, the company that owns the line.

Jean-Louis Shilansky, the president of the French Union of Petroleum Industries, said that French airports are not in imminent danger of running out of fuel. If necessary, he said, France can always import more jet fuel.

French workers began their latest round of strikes a week ago. The government, which contends that France can no longer afford the earlier retirement payments, has shown no sign of backing down.

Analysts say pension reform will likely be a defining moment in Sarkozy's presidency.

A government crisis coordination task force met for the first time Monday to discuss the fuel situation, the Ministry of the Interior said. The group, led by Interior Minister Brice Hortefeaux, will aim to "coordinate the action of different state departments to ensure a continuous fuel supply."

CNN's Winne Andrews, Saskya Vandoorne and Talia Kayali contributed to this report.