Strikers cut fuel pipeline to Paris


Refinery workers cut off a fuel pipeline to Paris today as protesters piled on pressure to derail French president Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pension reform.

Police broke up blockades at fuel depots in southern France but protesters blocked a terminal at Paris's Orly airport and truckers were set to join the fray as momentum built for a day of street rallies tomorrow.

A nationwide strike is planned on Tuesday, a day before the Senate is due to vote on a bill to make people work longer for their pensions.

The protests have become the biggest challenge facing the centre-right president, who is struggling with rock-bottom popularity ratings as he tries to appease financial markets by stemming a ballooning pension shortfall.

Turnout among striking rail workers dropped to 15 per cent today, from 40 per cent earlier in the week, but union leaders hope to galvanise the public for next week's action with the same force that saw a 1995 pension bill crushed by 24 days of protests. Next Tuesday's strike could hit various sectors.

"This movement is deeply anchored in the country," CGT union leader Bernard Thibault told LCI television.

"The government is betting on this movement deteriorating, even breaking down. I think we have the means to disappoint them."

France's main trucking union called on truck drivers to join next Tuesday's strike, though they may not be able to use their bosses' trucks to block roads.

The best chance Mr Sarkozy's opponents have of bringing down his pension bill is if strikes at oil refineries continue and start to threaten fuel supply, or if youths hit the streets en masse and set off violent scuffles.

A pipeline supplying fuel to the Paris region and its airports stopped operating today because of strikes at northern refineries, a source at the company operating the pipeline said, and motorists across France stocked up on petrol as depot blockades squeezed supply.

TV footage showed riot police using teargas to contain young protesters in the southern city of Lyon and in Paris police officers got orders to stop using flashball riot control pellets to quieten crowds after a secondary school student was badly injured on Thursday.

Students at hundreds of schools across France joined the protest movement in force from yessterday, shouting anti-Sarkozy slogans. Dozens have been arrested and today more were barred by riot police from nearing the prime minister's offices.

Polls show two-thirds of French people oppose Mr Sarkozy'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.

The government has been at loggerheads with unions for months over the issue and five rounds of strike action since the summer have badly disrupted public transport and air travel.

The strikes have had negligible impact on France's economy but have sparked worries among financial analysts about whether France will struggle to push through broader austerity measures necessary to bring down its deficit.