|High-school students have joined the protests against the government’s pension-overhaul plans [AFP]|
A fifth day of mass rallies against pension reform jolts France on Saturday as rolling strikes cut the fuel pipeline to Paris airports and shut down most of the country’s oil refineries.
In an attempt to pummel the government into backing down on its controversial pension reform plans, workers unions are pressing ahead with nationwide protests.
Forcing the country’s main international airport to run out of fuel is certainly going to up the ante on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, which is pushing for the disputed reforms.
Millions are expected to join nationwide protests against a change to the retirement age in France, just four days ahead of the final government vote on the reforms.
The country has already endured four straight days of strikes over the government’s unpopular pension reform, squeezing fuel supplies, grounding flights and cutting rail services.
A united alliance of unions, leftwing political parties and other groups will be protesting in the street on Saturday afternoon, and a major strike has been called for Tuesday.
Trapil, the Paris pipeline operator, told the AFP news agency that Charles de Gaulle, the country’s main airport, could run out of fuel by next week, while Orly “has stocks for 17 days”.
The French senate is due to vote on the reforms on Wednesday, the last step needed to make the reforms law.
The government says it will not be backing down on the unpopular pension plan, which will raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62.
The reform, the government argues, is the only way to stop a 32bn euro annual pension shortfall ballooning to 50bn by 2020.
The government and unions will be looking at the turnout for indications about the strength of the protest. Unions said demonstrations on Tuesday drew 3.5 million people onto the streets; the interior ministry put the figure at 1.23 million.
Rail networks on Saturday will be affected as may air travel after runway worker strikes at Paris’s Orly airport on Friday grounded some Air France flights out of the capital.
Protests by student groups are of particular concern for the government, following outbreaks of violence with police on Thursday and Friday.
Several students and police have been reported injured. A 16-year-old student may have lost an eye after police fired rubber bullets during clashes in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil.
Striking French oil-refinery workers have cut the fuel supply to Paris airports, raising fears of a fuel shortage.
Fuel depots were blockaded by protesters on Friday in a bid to reverse the government’s plans to raise the retirement age.
The pipeline supplying Paris stopped operating because of strikes at northern refineries, a source at the company operating the pipeline said.
Fuel distributors said several hundred filling stations had been shut because their supplies had run out, reportedly prompting panic buying among motorists.
“We’re filling up at petrol stations to save the fuel we have in depots as much as possible,” one lorry driver in Paris’ southern suburb of Rungis said.
“But if this carries on, we won’t be able to last too long either. We’ll have to go fishing.”
French police restored access to at least three of the depots after all 12 of the nations refineries had been shut down due to the strike.
But ousted strikers moved their picket lines to other distribution centres as the fight against the French government’s plans to raise the retirement age continued.
At Donges, in western France, striking refinery workers built a barricade of burning tyres as they waited to confront police.
The action comes a day after the government attempted to calm fears of fuel shortages, amid reports of panic buying after eight refineries shut down operations on Thursday.
Dominique Bussereau, the French transport minister, authorised oil companies to use some of their reserves after transport companies complained of difficulties finding fuel for their vehicles.
But he said there was no reason for drivers to fear a shortage.
Police managed to reopen a depot near the southern port city of Marseille and removed blockades at another near the southwestern city of Bordeaux, and at a third site near Clermont-Ferrand.
But strikers threw up fresh pickets in at least five other fuel depots.
Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres [UFIP], a refiners’ group, has urged authorities to use strategic stocks, a decision last made in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina in the US disrupted international supply.
|Panic-buying was reported at some petrol stations as refineries across France were blockaded [AFP]|
No backing down
In the Riviera city of Cannes, a police officer was injured by a stone thrown during a student protest. TV footage showed riot police using teargas to contain young protesters in the southern city of Lyon.
“There have never since 1995 been as many protesters … from both the public and private sectors, and now from all generations,” Bernard Thibault, the head of the powerful CGT union, told LCI television.
“The government is betting on this movement deteriorating, even breaking down. I think we have the means to disappoint them.”
In 1995, then president Jacques Chirac backed down over pension revamp after a three-week transport strike paralysed France.
But despite the ongoing strikes and protests, the current government shows no sign of backing down.
Key parts of the pensions overhaul, part of efforts to rein in France’s public deficit, have been definitively passed by the upper house and the government hopes for it to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.
Unions and the Socialist opposition say Sarkozy is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have made alternative proposals for funding the deficit.
Polls show two-thirds of French people oppose the president’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and lift the age at which people can retire on a full pension to 67 from 65.