French protests intensify, government stands firm

French protests intensify, government stands firm

Paris: French truck drivers staged go-slow operations on highways, rail strikes intensified and petrol stations ran out of fuel on Monday as protests gathered pace ahead of a Senate vote on an unpopular pension overhaul.

The government, which has stood firm on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age through months of protests, assured the public infrastructure would not freeze up despite a week-long strike at refineries that dried up supplies at hundreds of the 12,500 petrol stations nationwide.

“The situation is critical," a spokeswoman at Exxon Mobil said. “Anyone looking for diesel in the Paris and Nantes (Western France) regions will have problems," she said.

Strike action was ramping up ahead of a nationwide march called for Tuesday, and with the final Senate vote scheduled for Wednesday, it was looking like a make-or-break week for Sarkozy.

Workers at France’s 12 refineries were in their 7th day of a strike on Monday and protesters were blocking access many fuel distribution depots around the country.

The UFIP oil industry lobby has said France could see serious fuel supply problems by mid-week, meaning the government may have to look at tapping emergency reserves.

The CGT union said on Monday it was calling on workers to protest at airports nationwide on Wednesday. The union, the largest at Air France, said the protests would not necessarily involve blocking airport access but that this remained an option.

Government ministers stressed the country had plenty of fuel and that airports in particular have ample supply.

“The government is in control," industry minister Christian Estrosi told RTL radio on Monday. “There will be no blockade for companies, no blockade for transport and no blockade for road users."

France’s super- and hypermarket chains account for about 60% of car fuel sales in France and an industry association representing the bulk of those outlets said on Monday between 500 and 1,000 stations were either empty, out of one fuel or other, or seeking fresh supplies.

At an empty service station on Paris’ Champs Elysees avenue, manager Paula said she spent much of Monday morning trying to stop motorists unhooking the fuel pumps. “It’s madness, we’re submerged," she said.

A majority of French support protests against planned legislation to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, a measure the government says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension deficit.

The main points of Sarkozy’s bill have passed through both houses of parliament and following a Senate vote scheduled for Wednesday on the full package, the bill could soon be signed into law.

Truck drivers used vans from Sunday evening to slow the flow of traffic on motorways around Paris and cities like Lille, Lyon and Rennes, but had not yet resorted to using fleets of large trucks to block roads.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has warned protesters that blockading vital infrastructure is illegal.

“The right to strike is not the right to bar access to a fuel depot, that’s an illegal action," Fillon told TF1 television on Sunday. “I will not let the French economy suffocate from a blockage of fuel supply."

TV stations broadcast footage of workers at the Grandpuits refinery saying they had been “requisitioned" under government orders to go to work or risk jail but that they could not work because co-workers had formed human chains at the site.

Sarkozy was due to hold talks later on Monday in the northern seaside resort of Deauville with his German and Russian counterparts Angela Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev.