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French Unions: We Won't Pay For 'Failures of Global Finance'
French Police, Strikers Clash Ahead of Pension Vote
PARIS – French riot police tear-gassed workers trying to block a fuel depot and broke up a picket at a key refinery serving Paris on Friday, hours before the Senate votes on fiercely-contested pension reforms.
Police used tear gas to repel 200 demonstrators trying to block a fuel depot before dawn near the southern city of Toulouse as part of protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to hike retirement age to 62, unions said.
Police moved in a few hours later to clear the entrance to Grandpuits refinery, which serves the Paris region, after an emergency decree ordered strikers there back to work. Three people were injured, unions said.
Fuel distribution firms warned that their plans to resupply filling stations would take longer than planned, but the government insisted that as yet it has no plans to introduce petrol rationing.
Turmoil continued around the country, as students staged another day of protests, workers stepped up fuel depot pickets and unions called two more days of mass strikes and street rallies for next week and the week after.
Hundreds of riot squad officers stood by in Lyon to try to prevent a repeat of Thursday's violence that saw security forces fire water cannon and fight running battles with rampaging youths in the east-central city.
Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said fuel shortages had eased but one in five petrol stations was still without supplies as many families prepared to go on holiday when schools shut Friday for a mid-term break.
For two months France has been in the grip of a wave of protests against Sarkozy's bid to raise retirement age from 60 and the age at which retirees can get full pension payments from 65 to 67.
The protests have become the biggest battle of the right-wing president's mandate and he has staked his credibility on a reform he says is essential to reduce France's public deficit.
The bill has been moving through parliament and Labour Minister Eric Woerth said it would be approved in a Senate vote "in the coming hours", clearing the last major hurdle, which means it could become law as early as next week.
"The law is the law, so the protests, the discontent, the concern ... should end the moment the law is voted," he told France 2 television.
But unions, who say the reforms unfairly penalise workers for the failures of global finance, showed no sign of easing their campaign to bring Sarkozy, whose poll ratings are at an all-time low, to the negotiating table.
On Thursday, at the end of another day of clashes between youths and police in cities across France, unions called for workers to join two new days of nationwide demonstrations next Thursday and on November 6.
"Strengthened by the support of workers, the young and a majority of the population ... the labour organisations have decided to continue and to broaden the mobilisation," the main labour groups said in a joint statement.
More than a million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the sixth day of nationwide action since early September.
An opinion poll published Friday by the BVA institute and broadcast by Canal Plus television, showed that most French voters back the strikes, by a margin of 69 percent to 29 -- but 52 percent oppose the blockade of refineries.
Charles Foulard, head of the powerful CGT union in the refinery sector, insisted the goal of the blockade was not to "paralyse the country" but was "a cry for help to the government to open negotiations."
France's 12 oil refineries have been disrupted by the strikes.
Transport Minister Borloo said the police operation at Grandpuits was not designed to restart refining but to gain access to fuel already stocked there.
In Marseille civil defence troops have been sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where garbage collectors are on strike, and in Toulouse intensified workers are blocking access to dumps.
Rubbish was starting to pile up in some areas of Paris too due to strike action by garbage collectors.