Fuel runs low as French protest


Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in cities across France today for marches that unions hope could crush President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age.

Diesel and jet fuel supplies were running low today in parts of France as the country braced itself for another nationwide protest against government plans to raise the retirement age.

Union leaders want to bring enough people onto the street to make the government think again, while rail and refinery strikes continued to disrupt travel around the country.

Protesters are marching in Toulouse, in the south, and other cities, waving red union flags. The biggest crowds were in Paris.

Fuel supplies were a prime concern as unions announced yesterday that all 13 refineries in France were on strike and many depots were blocked by protesters. Police were called in to force three crucial fuel depots to reopen, including one near the southern city of Marseille.

The Ecology Ministry said in a statement that Charles de Gaulle airport had enough fuel stocks to last until least Tuesday. However, it left open the question of what happens after that.

Economy minister Christine Lagarde urged people not to panic over fuel as she said the country had ample stocks for now. "We have reserves," she told France's RTL radio, adding supply problems had affected 230 petrol stations out of a total 13,000 in the country. "People mustn't panic," she said.

France’s transport minister Dominique Bussereau authorised oil companies to use some of their reserves after trucking companies complained of difficulties finding fuel, but he insisted there was no reason for drivers to fear a petrol shortage.

Still, a sign today at a petrol station in Feyzin, near the eastern city of Lyon, announced a fuel shortage at all pumps.

In Paris, balloons floated above the Place de la Republique, the starting point for today’s protest against plans to make the French work until 62 before retiring. It was the latest in a full month of protests that have swept France, affecting trains, subways, airports, hospitals, schools and other key facilities.

The government and unions will be looking closely at today's turnout. Unions said nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday drew 3.5 million protesters. The Interior Ministry put the figure at 1.23 million.

The government's main concern is youth protesters turning violent. Riot police used tear gas yesterday to disperse crowds in the city of Lyon. Dozens of students were arrested across the country and several police officers were injured.

Rail services were reduced today, but flights out of Paris's Orly airport were back to normal following disruption yesterday caused by a strike by runway workers.

Countries across Europe are cutting spending and raising taxes to bring down deficits and debts that hit record levels after the 2008 financial crisis resulted in the worst recession in 70 years. Labour leaders, students and civil servants are fighting back.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms - especially raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 - are seen by unions as an attack on their near-sacred social protections.

Mr Sarkozy is determined to overcome the powerful trade unions and push ahead with his pension reform, saying it is the only way to stop a €32 billion annual pension shortfall ballooning to €50 billion by 2020.

The Senate is to vote on the measure on Wednesday.

France has a long tradition of overpowering unpopular government proposals through street militancy, although polls suggest French people are coming to terms with the fact that delaying retirement, in line with other European countries, is becoming inevitable. Even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe.

Ms Lagarde told RTL that gradually lifting the minimum and full retirement ages by two years would be less painful than raising pension contributions or trimming retirement benefits for the 15 million people in France currently receiving them.