Oil workers expand strikes at French refineries

Strikes spread to all of France`s oil refineries on the 4th day of nationwide protests over govt`s plan to raise retirement age.

Paris: Strikes spread Friday to all of France`s oil refineries, though disturbances in schools and the transport system appeared to ease slightly on the fourth day of nationwide protests over the government`s plan to raise the retirement age.

Workers at all 12 of France`s refineries are on strike after two plants owned by Exxon Mobil and Petroplus voted to join the protest Friday, said Charles Foulard, a union coordinator at oil giant Total SA.

France`s transport minister authorized oil companies to use some of their reserves after trucking companies complained of difficulties fueling their vehicles. Dominique Bussereau told French radio station RTL that the country`s stocks of fuel meant there was no reason for drivers to fear a gas shortage.

Students, whose appearance at demonstrations Tuesday caught the government`s attention, were still on the street Friday but fewer in number. The students and labor unions see President Nicolas Sarkozy`s pension reform — raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 — as an attack on their well-deserved social protections. The government says it is the only way to save the money-draining pension system and insists that people have to work longer because they are living longer.

The Education Ministry said 306 high schools were affected to various degrees by strikes Friday, down from 342 on Thursday. There are around 4,300 high schools in France.
Several hundred students blocked the entrance to Lycee Voltaire high school near Paris` famed Pere Lachaise cemetery Friday morning, as they had done every day since Tuesday.

"We want to tell Sarkozy that he is really in trouble, the youth are ready to mobilize with the rest of the 70 percent of the French society that is against this reform," said Benjamin Vernay, 17, a student leader at the school.

While the protesting students won`t reach retirement age for decades, the government is keeping a close eye on their rallies because student protests have brought down major government reforms in the past. Several labor unions also announced another round of nationwide demonstrations next Tuesday — in addition to the planned street protests throughout the country expected Saturday.

France`s transportation system was running more smoothly Friday, after severe disruptions hit air, rail and road traffic earlier in the week. Airports were functioning normally, as was Paris` public transport system, with the exception of the RER B suburban train line that connects the capital to its two main airports. The line was operating at 50 percent of normal levels, the RATP public transport authority said on its website.
The SNCF national railway operator said traffic on Eurostar trains between Paris and London was normal. Around two-thirds of the TGV high-speed trains departing from and arriving in Paris were running, the SNCF said.

However, the train authority recommended that travelers heading to southern France postpone their trips because of "local difficulties," with regional train service running at around 50 percent.

Bureau Report