Closures of oil depots had let to one third of petrol station running dry by Tuesday [AFP]

French authorities have forced open three fuel depots blockaded by workers protesting against plans to raise the retirement age.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, ordered the blockades surrounding the depots to be removed as one-third of petrol stations nationwide ran out of supplies following six days of demonstrations.

Brice Hortefeux, interior minister, said that the depots had been reopened peacefully in the early hours on Wednesday.

"The current situation cannot continue without serious consequences for our life as a society and our economy but also for the health and safety of our citizens," Hortefeux said at a news conference.

"We will continue to unblock these depots as much as necessary," he said.

Protests planned

Further strikes against plans to overhaul France pensions system are expected after a night of unrest between youths and riot police in several towns.

Pension Reform

 

  Under current rules, the French can retire at 60, providing they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years.
  Retirees are entitled to a full pension when they are 65.
  The planned reform would raise the minimum retirement age to 62 by 2018, the qualification to 41.5 years, and the pension age to 67.
  Officials say the reforms would save about $95bn.

Shops in the city of Lyon were looted as workers and students came out on the streets to protests against attempts by the government to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62.

In Nanterre, west of Paris, several hundred youths threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas.

More than one million protestors rallied across France on Tuesday, with public workers and students mounting pressure on the government to scrap the measures, which are designed to tackle the country's economic problems.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled and desperate drivers searched for fuel as oil refinery strikes and blockades emptied the pumps.

Sarkozy has vowed to guarantee public order in the face of "troublemakers." The government announced a plan to pool gasoline stocks so that dry stations can be filled.

"There are people who want to work, the immense majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline,"Sarkozy said.

With more than 200 protests on Tuesday, all 12 French oil refineries shut down by strikes and lorry drivers blocking roads.

Jean-Louis Borloo, the environment and transport minister said that "a little under 4,000 petrol stations are awaiting deliveries." There are around 12,500 filling stations in France.

French fuel and heating federation FF3C said the "extremely worrying" situation "should definitely be called a shortage", while the International Energy Agency said France has "sufficient stocks" to deal with the situation.

The demonstrations are sending a strong message to the government, but are also taking their toll on the protesters.

"With my friends, we’ve been blocking the depot for over a week. But now we’re not feeling good about it at all, morally or physically speaking," Patrick, a depot worker, told Al Jazeera.

Authorities in Normandy requisitioned 12 petrol stations for use by rescue and emergency services.

Senate vote

A new test could come as early as Thursday, when students plan a day of protests in Paris hours before the senate is expected to vote on the retirement measure.

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Paris, said: "The protesters really feel that the senate has not been listening to them so they have taken their protest to the senate itself.

"This is highly symbolic and it is the first time since this popular action began that demonstrations have actually taken place outside the [senate] building."

French unions have a long tradition of street protests, but the current strife is sensitive because it has touched the vital energy sector and is drawing the youth into the mix.

"In the suburbs of Paris, the demonstrations are taking an increasingly violent turn. The young people here are angry about a lot more than just pension reform and were venting their fury on police," Rowland said.

The 2006 student demonstrations forced the government to abandon a law aimed at making it easier for employers to hire and fire young people.

Today's protesters are trying to stop the government from approving a bill that the government says will prevent the pension system from going bankrupt as citizens live longer and a diminishing pool of young workers pay into the system.

Unions claim the move would erode France's near-sacred tradition of generous social benefits including long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidised health care system in favour of "American-style capitalism."

About 1.1 million people joined 260 protest marches across France on Tuesday, according to the interior ministry, though trade unions put the figure at three times that.

Source: Agencies