Sarkozy sends police to open blocked fuel depots

French Prez Nicolas Sarkozy sent in riot police Friday to reopen fuel depots blocked by strikes.

Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in riot police Friday to reopen fuel depots blocked by strikes, as the pipeline to Paris airports was cut in an escalating battle over pension reform.

But even as officers forced open the barricades at some depots, strikers threw up new pickets at other distribution centres across the country to fight against moves to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Students protested outside the prime minister`s offices and took to the streets in demonstrations across France, where more than 300 schools were hit by a fourth consecutive day of blockades or other actions, officials said.

Sarkozy on Thursday took the decision to send in the police in order to prevent fuel shortages amid reports of panic buying after all of France`s 12 refineries shut down or reduced operations because of the strikes.

But fuel distributors said that several hundred filling stations had to shut on Friday because their supplies had run out. The government has given oil companies permission to tap into their own emergency stocks, but has resisted calls to open the part of the French strategic fuel reserve controlled by a government committee.

Workers at a depot in Fos-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean did not resist when police intervened to reopen the facility, unions said. Police also reopened depots at Bassens and Lespinasse in the southwest and Cournon d`Auvergne in the centre.

But strikers threw up fresh pickets in at least five fuel depots on Friday, at Caen and Ouistreham in the north, Le Mans and Vern-sur-Seiche in the northwest, and La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.

The strike action forced the shutdown of the fuel pipeline to Paris`s two main airports as well as depots outside the capital, the pipeline operator Trapil said.

The main Paris air hub, Charles de Gaulle, could run out of fuel as early as next week, a company spokesman said, adding that three fuel depots supplying road filling stations south of the capital would also be hit.

"Orly airport has stocks for 17 days, and Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) for at least the weekend," he said, explaining that the pipeline carried petrol, diesel and aviation fuel from the Grandpuits refinery east of Paris.

The CGT trade union said its members had downed tools at Grandpuits and that production there would halt completely on Friday. France`s main unions have upped the ante in their fight against pension reform, calling for their members and supporters to hold the fifth in a series street rallies on Saturday and another one next Tuesday.

A nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations last Tuesday brought more than a million people on to the streets, and workers in some sectors have kept up their stoppages since then.

High school pupils have also been demonstrating in several cities in what is traditionally interpreted in France as a sign of hardening resistance. Pupils threw stones at police at two schools north of Paris and officers clashed with youths and made arrests in Lens in the north on Thursday.

"There have never since 1995 been so many protestors ... from both the public and private sectors, and now from all generations," CGT leader Bernard Thibault told LCI television. In 1995 then president Jacques Chirac backed down over pension reform after a three-week transport strike that paralysed France.

But despite the ongoing strikes and protests, the current government shows no sign of retreating from what is a cornerstone of Sarkozy`s reform agenda as he prepares for his likely re-election battle in 2012.

Key sections of the reform, part of efforts to rein in France`s public deficit, have been definitively passed by the upper house Senate and the government hopes for it to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.

Unions and the Socialist opposition say the right-wing president is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have made alternative proposals for funding the deficit by raising taxes on the rich.

Bureau Report