France faces more protests as pension vote looms

The center-right government has stood firm through a wave of protests and strikes since the summer.

Paris: The French government sent police to clear access to barricaded fuel depots as trade unions kept up their resistance on Wednesday to an unpopular pension reform due for a final vote in the Senate this week.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said three depots were unblocked overnight as France braced for more public sector strikes and protests against the reform, which would lift the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.

Backed by a majority of French people, unions are trying to force President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose ratings are at rock-bottom 18 months before a presidential election, to retreat on what is being seen as the defining reform of his presidency.

The center-right government has stood firm through a wave of protests and strikes since the summer which gathered momentum last week with stoppages at oil refineries and blockades of fuel depots that have dried out petrol pumps across the country.

"To demonstrate is one thing, to blockade is another. We will not let the country be blockaded," government spokesman Luc Chatel told RTL radio, explaining Sarkozy`s order to police.

At least a million people demonstrated across France on Tuesday, the sixth such day of national protest since June in what has become the most persistent challenge to economic reforms being enacted across recession-hit Europe.

Sporadic outbreaks of violence flared on the fringes of some marches, notably in the southeastern city of Lyon, raising concerns for the authorities that small groups of people were trying to hijack the predominantly peaceful protests.

Most political analysts expect the reforms to pass into law and for the dissent to fizzle out gradually.

After 24-hour stoppages hit the rail and aviation networks on Tuesday, Wednesday`s industrial action was likely to be less severe but fuel shortages were a major problem.

Unions to fight on

Nearly one in three of the country`s 12,500 petrol stations were dry or running short, forcing the government to tap strategic reserves. Prime Minister Francois Fillion has promised fuel distribution will be back to normal within days.

"For us in the taxi trade, no fuel means no income and that means no food," Jean Gannichia, head of a taxi federation in the southern port city of Marseille, told a television channel.

Marseille has been one of the centers of a protest movement that has strangled oil refineries and fuel distribution depots.

Unions have vowed to continue open-ended strikes on the railways although the SNCF state rail company predicted some services, such as international links, would run near to normal.

In addition to continued strikes at the railways and at the oil refineries, freight truck and delivery van drivers have said they will continue protests that include motorway go-slows.

The national aviation authority expected only limited disruption on Wednesday from industrial action after 30-50 percent of short-haul flights were cancelled on Tuesday.

Albert Doutre, an official in charge of urban security in Lyon, said police reinforcements were being drafted in to raise officer numbers to 800 from 500 after Tuesday`s violence, which he described as "guerrilla warfare."

Some 75 people were arrested after stone-throwing youths torched about 30 vehicles in the city center.

Bureau Report