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Nearing empty

October 16, 2010

Strikes in France against proposed pension reform plans continued on the weekend, with at least 825,000 people taking part. Fears that Paris' main airports would run out of fuel, however, eased as a pipeline reopened.

Gas station in France
Fuel shortages still affect some drivers in FranceImage: AP

At least 825,000 people across France took part in protest marches against the government's proposed pension reform on Saturday, according to the Interior Ministry, the lowest official total since protests began in September.

Unions, however, estimated the turnout at "around 3 million," and labor leaders insisted the campaign would continue.

"The movement is taking root and growing in terms of the number of companies hit by various forms of strike as in the number of employees taking part in the action," the powerful CGT union said in a statement released Saturday.

Labor Minister Eric Woerth, however, insisted there had been a "significant drop-off" from the 1.2 million people who marched against the reforms on Tuesday.

"There were, nevertheless, still a lot of protesters. That underlines the government's duty to explain this reform better," he said. The proposed reforms would raise the minimum retirement age in France from 60 to 62 and the age for a full pension from 65 to 67.

Fuel shortage eased

The terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport
Jet fuel is once again flowing to Charles de Gaulle airportImage: AP

Meanwhile, concerns about the fuel supply at France's airports from work stoppages at 10 of the country's 12 oil refineries have been eased.

The two main airports in Paris, Orly and Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, had seen service of their main fuel line intermittently interrupted. Service been restored for the time being, but the continuing strikes could mean additional interruptions.

"There are no longer any problems at all," Dominique Bussereau, France's deputy minister for transportation, told Europe 1 radio on Sunday. Only smaller airport were still be affected the strikes.

Service stations were also running low on fuel, though Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told RTL television that only 230 stations out of 3,000 had run dry. She insisted that they had "several weeks of fuel stocks" and called on people not to panic about potential shortages.

"I'm sure that with intelligent social dialogue we will be able to free things up rather than block them," she said.

Oil companies have been given permission by the government to tap into their own reserves, but officials have so far not allowed access to a strategic reserve, which is controlled by a government committee.

Meanwhile, the strikes have also affected France's national rail system, SNCF. About half of the network's scheduled trains were cancelled on Saturday.

Truck drivers are expected to join the strike action on Sunday evening, putting their ability to affect traffic behind the protest effort.

Police arrest a protester
Friday's protests led to over 200 arrestsImage: AP

More strikes planned

The latest strikes against the proposed pension reform started Tuesday, when around a million people marched in protests around the country.

Unions and the Socialist opposition have vowed to defend the right to retire at 60. They accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of making workers carry the burden for the failure of the financial sector, and have proposed increasing taxes on the rich.

High school students have become increasingly involved, leading to some conflicts with police. On Friday, protests involving students escalated and police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. Over 200 arrests were made and several police officers were injured.

Raising the minimum retirement age has already been approved by France's National Assembly, and the motion is scheduled for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday.

Bernard Thibault, head of CGT, one of France's largest unions, said if the law is passed by the second house of parliament the protests may not end.

"You know from experience that even a law that has been passed doesn't end dissent," he told Europe 1 radio, referring to a law on youth employment that was passed but never applied.

French labor unions hope to pressure the government into changing its plans for pension reform and have called for another nationwide strike on Tuesday ahead of the Senate vote. So far, the government has shown no signs of yielding on pension reform.

Author: Matt Zuvela, Martin Kuebler (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

Editor: Sean Sinico