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French Police Force Open Blockaded Fuel Depot

Friday, 22 October 2010 09:52 AM

French riot police rushed picket lines to break a blockade of the main fuel refinery supplying Paris on Friday as unions hardened their stance before a vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform.

Signaling their determination to keep fighting even after a bill raising the retirement age becomes law, the country's six main unions have called for two more days of action on Oct. 28 and Nov. 6 against the unpopular reform.

"The protests are not stopping, we just have different views on how to proceed," Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the more radical Force Ouvriere union told RMC radio. "We still think that demonstrating is not enough ... we have to ramp it up ... we need a strong day of public and private sector strikes."

The government appeared equally determined.

Police in riot gear wielding shields rushed a blockade and cleared pickets and burning tires at dawn at Total's Grandpuits oil refinery, which supplies fuel for the Paris area. Scuffles broke out at the refinery southeast of the capital and one person was carried away on a stretcher after being trampled.

Analysts did not expect the strikes to have any lasting impact on sentiment towards French debt. France comfortably sold short-term paper on Thursday though it paid a premium from previous issues on what analysts said may be fleeting concerns over ability to enforce austerity measures.

"The crisis to date has had next-to-no impact on bond spreads in France," said Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics.

"I think there's a perception in the markets that this is just the French being French and the vote will be approved."

The centre-right government resorted to a special guillotine procedure to speed the reform bill's passage through the Senate, with a vote now due on Friday evening as pressure builds on Sarkozy to end the long-running impasse with the unions ahead of half-term holidays beginning this weekend.

The president's popularity ratings are near an all-time low 18 months before a presidential election in which he is widely expected to seek a second term.

In addition to transport disruption, Sarkozy is battling 11-day-old strikes at the country's 12 refineries and fuel depot blockades that Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said forced the closure of one in five petrol stations.

Jean-Louis Schilansky head of oil sector lobby UFIP told reporters after a meeting Prime Minister Francois Fillon there was enough fuel to last for several weeks or months by increasing imports and pooling reserves.


"We had the "rafles" (roundups) during Petain's time: now in the era of Sarkozy we have the roundup of our social and union rights," said Charles Foulard, leader of the oil sector workers at the communist-led CGT union. "Sarkozy has declared war."

His choice of the term associated with the mass arrests of Jews in Nazi-occupied France drew immediate condemnation.

Sarkozy says the reform is the only way to limit ballooning pension shortfalls and protect the coveted "AAA" credit rating that allows France to borrow at favorable interest rates.

"If the French are not careful, they will soon join the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) as the troubled economies of Europe," said Professor Anthony Sabino, at St. John's University in New York.

The government is aiming to cut the deficit to 6.0 percent of gross domestic product next year based on an economic growth forecast of 2 percent in the first phase of a plan to trim the budget gap to the EU's 3.0 percent limit by 2013.


Sarkozy wants the bill — which would raise the minimum age of retirement to 62 from 60 and the maximum age for a full pension to 67 from 65 — passed quickly in the hope that protests will fade once it has become law.

But even after police cleared access to all the main fuel depots, striking workers seemed determined to maintain their grip on vital sectors of the economy with blockades.

If the reform becomes law, France would still have one of the lowest minimum retirement ages in Europe. The broader measures Sarkozy is pushing through to cut the deficit are far milder than in countries such as Britain, which unveiled 80 billion pounds ($126.3 billion) in spending cuts this week.

Yet a poll for Canal Plus television broadcast on Friday showed an increase in support for the strikes from six days ago with 70 percent of French backing the industrial action. Polls show most people are against Sarkozy's pension bill.

Unions are betting that involving high school and university students — thousands of whom demonstrated on Thursday — and private sector workers could tip the scales and force the government to back down, as it did 15 years ago in the face of mass protests and transport strikes against pension reform.

But the number of young protesters remains far smaller than in 1995 or 2006 and the transport disruption less widespread.

Flare-ups of violence by masked youths in the central city of Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre have also blemished the peaceful and disciplined image of the protest movement.

Unions said marches this week drew some 3.5 million people, but the government put the number at just over a million.

"What we're doing has been done everywhere else in the world," said Labour Minister Eric Woerth. "The protests, worries, discontent have to stop when the law is passed."

Once approved by the Senate a commission with the National Assembly should meet on Oct. 25 to bring together both versions of the text, the upper house's president Gerard Larcher said.

© 2019 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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French riot police rushed picket lines to break a blockade of the main fuel refinery supplying Paris on Friday as unions hardened their stance before a vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform. Signaling their determination to keep fighting even after a bill...
Friday, 22 October 2010 09:52 AM
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