Lyon is reeling this evening after some of the worst rioting ever seen in its peacetime history. Police and firemen were attacked and GIGN anti-terrorist and hostage-taking specialist teams were used to break up crowds of rioters who went on the rampage throughout the city center, smashing shop windows and looting wherever they went during a cat-and-mouse battle that lasted all day.
The center of Lyon is a kind of island measuring 2 kilometers by 900 meters at a point where the city's two major rivers – the Rhône and the Saône - meet. At the upstream end is a very steep hill. This allowed riot police to seal off the whole of downtown by blocking the many bridges which lead to it and installing a heavy cordon of police at the foot of the hill in order to contain the rioters, who were protesting against a retirement reform bill which will raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62.
Running battles followed, during which attempts were made to block streets off using burning cars. Firemen who went to put out the fires were verbally abused by rioters.
The air became full of smoke and tear gas hung over the areas affected by the confrontations. Riot police contented themselves with slowly forcing the rioters into the town’s central square, Bellecour, where they blocked off all the exits but one, which led towards the exterior of the island.
A Figaro correspondent described the scenes
in these terms; “About 2000 youths are roaming the streets in an insurrectional climate of urban guerrilla combat.”
The police launched tear gas canisters whenever the stone-throwers got too close. One press photographer was hit in the face by a bottle and two more were slightly injured.
The air became unbreathable and the rioters funneled down the only street left open to them, causing more damage before GIGN squads were called in to force them into the Perrache railway station, which had been shut down. From there the rioters were forced to retreat by advancing riot police and exit via the back entrance into the streets behind the station, where they eventually dispersed at around 5pm.
Several French cities saw similar violence and reports are still being compiled on the numbers of arrests and injured, but the numbers are already in the hundreds.
The youths were rioting to protest a government retirement reform bill. The bill will most notably raise France's retirement age from 60 to 62 and both schoolchildren and students as well as their unions have demanded that it be scrapped.
This is a harder line than that taken by most trade unions, who have already obtained minor changes to the bill but are widely believed to have accepted that it will be voted and the age clause kept. They are hoping however that the many recent demonstrations and strikes will force the government to make more concessions on some of the other clauses such as exceptions for those working in physically demanding jobs and retirement arrangement for women.