Paris: Diesel and jet fuel supplies were running low Saturday in parts of France as workers took to the streets for another nationwide protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy`s plan to raise the retirement age to 62.
Fuel supplies were a prime concern as unions announced that all 12 fuel-producing refineries in France were on strike and many depots were being blocked by protesters. Police were called in Friday to force three crucial fuel depots to reopen, including one near the southern city of Marseille.
Saturday`s march from the Place de la Republique in Paris was the fifth in a full month of protests that have swept this nation of 64 million people, affecting trains, subways, airports, hospitals, schools and other facilities.
The Ecology Ministry said fuel stocks at Paris` Charles de Gaulle airport — one of Europe`s key hubs — were good until at least Tuesday, but the statement left open the question of what happens after that.
Dominique Bussereau, France`s transport minister, authorized oil companies to use some reserves after trucking companies complained of difficulties finding fuel, but he insisted there was no reason for drivers to fear a gas shortage.
Still, a sign Saturday at a gas station in Feyzin, near the eastern city of Lyon, announced a fuel shortage at all pumps and frustrated motorists reported other scattered problems.
"When the government says there will be no shortage, it means there will be a shortage," said Bernard Martin, a 60-year-old retiree who found no fuel at a Carrefour gas station in Ecully, near Lyon. "Since this morning, there is no more diesel fuel."
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. Labor leaders, students and civil servants are fighting back.
"(These protests are) an attempt to say stop abusing the workers and citizens," Christian Coste, head of the CGT Union at Total`s La Mede refinery, told Associated Press Television News on Saturday. "We are not here to bring France to its knees and create a shortage, we are here to make ourselves heard."
Workers have been striking for five days straight at the La Mede refinery in southern France.
On the streets of Marseille, garbage was left uncollected for the fourth straight day and firefighters had to extinguish some rubbish piles set afire. 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. The government says that is the only way to save the money-draining pension system and insists people must work longer because they are living longer.
"The French understand that those who are blocking this country are at the head of the government," CFDT union leader Francois Chereque said on BFM-TV. Yet even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. In cities around France excluding Paris, some 340,000 protesters were out by midday, according to the Interior Ministry. Union figures have been consistently far higher than official counts.
Saturday`s protests will not be the last. A new protest is set for Tuesday, a day before the French Senate is to vote on the pension reform. The CGT union also called Saturday to strengthen strikes at the SNCF train authority. About one-third of fast trains were hobbled by strikes Friday. The Eurostar train to London was running normally Saturday.
Elsewhere, thousands of students and teachers demonstrated Friday across Italy to protest planned cuts in education, while Portugal`s minority government faced a battle in parliament over abrupt tax hikes and deep spending cuts.
In Greece, riot police had to tear gas hundreds of Culture Ministry workers Friday to end a labor dispute that shut down the country`s most famous attraction, the Acropolis, for three days.