Pensions / France : French truckers block roads as anti-reform protests escalate

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    French truck drivers blocked roads as protests against pension reforms intensified Monday after the prime minister vowed to do whatever necessary to stop fuel supplies running out.

    Truckers staged go-slows on motorways near Paris and several provincial cities, and drivers blocked access to goods supply depots and joined oil workers blocking fuel depots to defend their right to retire at 60.

    The truckers’ action marked an escalation of the protests that have brought millions onto the streets in recent weeks. Another day of mass strikes and nationwide protest rallies is planned for Tuesday.

    High school students joined the protest en masse last week, and on Monday riot police fired tear gas at masked youths who set a car on fire, smashed bus stops and threw stones outside a school in a Paris suburb.

    The violence erupted after around 300 students tried to blockade the Joliot-Curie lycee in Nanterre, one of 261 schools across France that officials said were affected by the protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms.

    Labour wants to force Sarkozy into backing down on his plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, which is in the final days of its journey through a parliament in which the right-wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.

    Sarkozy has staked his credibility on the reform package, but unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when then president Jacques Chirac backed down on pension reform after a lengthy transport strike that paralysed France.

    Most French back the current protest movement, with a poll published Monday in the popular daily Le Parisien showing that 71 percent of those asked expressed either support for or sympathy with the anti-reform protests. With 11 out of France’s 12 oil refineries shut down by strike action, and many fuel depots blocked by pickets, panic buying led to a 50 percent jump in petrol sales last week.

    Around 1,500 petrol stations on the forecourts of French supermarkets had run out of fuel by Monday, their industry association said. Some 4,500 of France’s 12,500 filling stations are attached to shopping centres, and they are the country’s busiest, supplying 60 percent of the fuel used by French motorists.

    Prime Minister Francois Fillon had on Sunday sought to calm fears of petrol shortages, and he vowed to take any “necessary decisions” to ensure the country’s fuel supplies flowed.

    “I will not let the French economy be choked by a blockade of fuel supplies,” Fillon told TF1 television.

    “The right to strike is respected, but this is not the right to block access to fuel, or to deny non-striking workers access to their workplaces,” he said.

    The premier did not say what those measures might be, but the threat did little to deter the truckers who on Monday joined oil workers who maintained their pickets or threw up new ones outside fuel depots.

    “We will stay here as long as we can,” said the CFDT union’s Joseph Sieiro, one of the hundred people, most of them truckers, who turned up on Monday morning to block an oil terminal at Port-La-Nouvelle in southern France.

    Unions slammed the management’s reopening of a crucial pipeline bringing fuel to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, which officials warned could have run empty as early as Monday, saying untested fuel was flowing to planes.

    “Turning the pumps on again was done secretly this morning (Sunday) around 7:00 am by a handful of managers who are absolutely not trained for this kind of operation,” said Philippe Saunier of the powerful CGT union.

    Unions have said their protests may not end even after the pension reform is passed by the Senate this week.

    Paris, October 18, 2010 (AFP)