French police break oil blockades

 

French police have broken blockades at three oil depots amid fears of more violence as protests over planned pension reforms enter their seventh day.

At least a million protesters demonstrated in cities across the country yesterday in the biggest and most persistent challenge to economic reforms anywhere in Europe.

The protests are seen as the biggest test yet for French President Nicolas Sarkozy whose popularity ratings are low 18 months before a presidential election. Media coverage of the protests has put Mr Sarkozy under an uncomfortable spotlight as France prepares to take over the G20 presidency in mid-November.

Mr Sarkozy said today the government would not let the country be paralysed by protests against a pension reform that seeks to raise the minimum age of retirement to 62 from 60.

"If this disorder is not ended quickly, the attempt to paralyse the country could have consequences for jobs by disrupting the normal functioning of the economy," the president told a cabinet meeting in remarks released by his office.

He vowed again to push through his pension reform. With a Senate vote expected by the end of the week, trade unions tried to tighten their grip on key sectors of the economy with a ninth day of refinery strikes, go-slows by truck drivers on main highways and work stoppages at regional airports.

The wave of protests, which drew at least one million people yesterday or 3.5 million according to unions, has become the biggest and most persistent challenge to austerity measures and economic reforms being enacted across Europe.

Backed by a majority of voters, unions are trying to force Mr Sarkozy - whose ratings are near record lows 18 months before a presidential election - to retreat on what is seen as the defining reform of his presidency.

The centre-right government stood firm through a wave of protests and strikes since the summer but the most serious test of its resolve came last week when union strikes began to target fuel supplies, transport and air travel.

Police have cleared access to 21 oil depots since Friday, although a barricade reformed at Donges today.

Strikes halted operations at two of France's three liquefied natural gas terminals.

"We're ready to continue striking every day and go all the way," a CGT representative near Marseille told Reuters.

Yields on French 10-year bonds have risen since the pension protests began in the summer to stand 39 basis points above German benchmark debt from around 26 basis points in May as investors concerned about euro zone deficits and the French demonstrations protests demand a premium for France's debt.

Protests have largely been peaceful except for sporadic episodes of violence in the southeastern city of Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where clashes between youths and riot police broke out again today.

Youths in both cities burned cars and launched projectiles against police, who responded with tear gas, police said.

Nearly 1,500 alleged rioters have been arrested so far, 428 of them detained after flare-ups yesterday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said, adding that police had deployed extra measures including helicopters to boost security.

The Senate is working its way through hundreds of amendements to the bill and a final vote could come late on Friday, at the weekend or be put off until Monday, Senate officials said. The legislation is widely expected to be approved given that the key provisions have already passed.

The government is betting that protest will gradually fizzle out with 10 days of school holidays starting on Friday evening, but unions say they will not back down.

"You cannot say, 'now that it's been adopted we simply swallow the law and everyone goes home'. I think we have to go on," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union.

Disruptions on the SNCF rail network had eased today with two out of three high-speed TGV trains running and service on regional lines at about half-capacity - but fuel shortages remained a major headache.

The government is using strategic industry reserves and says supply should be normal by the weekend, when many schools break up for half-term holidays.

Natural gas supply may be hit, however, after striking liquefied natural gas workers blocked the unloading of an LNG tanker at the Atlantic terminal of Montoir.

Reuters