France fuel supply threatened by pensions stand-off
France faced the threat of fuel shortages on Wednesday as a wave of strikes over President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform plans shut down 70 percent of its oil refining capacity.
One day after a massive nationwide protest brought more than a million workers and students into the streets, dozens of follow-on strikes erupted around the country disrupting transport, schooling and services.
In some sectors the total number of strikers had declined since Tuesday, but the closure of the refineries carried the threat of further disruption if fuel stocks in depots and fillings stations run low in coming weeks.
Eight of France's 12 refineries were in the course of shutting down operations -- a process that can take 48 hours to complete -- and another three saw their operations severely disrupted by strike action
"We are hardening our stance," warned Charles Foulard, head of the CGT union's branch at the French oil giant Total, confirming that members had voted for an open-ended strike.
A Total spokesman confirmed the shutdowns, but the chairman of the oil industry association said France's network of fuel depots had enough fuel in them to keep its 12,500 filling stations running for the moment.
There were scattered reports of panic buying causing tail-backs at filling stations and local shortages, and -- as more fuel will have to be imported rather than refined in France -- price rises were expected.
"If the situation continues as it is now, we'll have to take a serious look at the problem of strategic stocks," Jean-Louis Schilansky said.
Sarkozy's work and pensions minister, Eric Woerth, insisted that the pension reform law would pass and that the government camp remained "calm, serene and determined" in the face of the mounting protests.
But -- as uncollected refuse began piling up on the streets of Marseille and the petrochemical industry complained it was losing hundreds of millions of dollars due to the refinery strike -- unions pledged more protests.
Opponents of a plan to increase the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 have called new protests for Saturday, and Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT, said they were "looking for new ways to pressure the government."
Tuesday's day of action saw students and school pupils join the rallies for the first time, swelling the marchers' numbers to between 1.2 and 3.5 million across the country, according to rival police and labour estimates.
Unions were staging votes in several key sectors of the economy to decide whether to mount ongoing strikes, rather than the series of one-day stoppages that have marked the dispute since September.
Rail unions have already begun such an action, and on Wednesday only one high-speed intercity link in three was operating and only four in 10 regional expresses, according to the SNCF national train firm.
International rail services such as the Eurostar to London and the Thalys to Belgium and the Netherlands were unaffected, and flights from Paris' main airports returned to normal after Tuesday's disruption.
If the strikes continue France faces the rising spectre of fuel shortages, with severe disruption to its oil refineries, almost all of which were closing down or limiting production because of industrial action.
Sarkozy's supporters have stepped up moves to push the pensions reform bill through parliament, gambling that -- despite its unpopularity -- protests will subside once it becomes a legal fait accompli.
Senators will complete their debate on the text of the bill in the coming days, perhaps before Saturday's massive protest, and the entire package could become law by the end of the month.
The right-wing president insists that with people living longer and France's public deficit at record levels, the French will have to work longer in order to help stem the shortfall in the social security account.
Unions and the Socialist opposition insist Sarkozy is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have vowed to resist any attempt to abandon the cherished 60 year retirement age.
Government was concerned to see students and school pupils join Tuesday's protest, which in France has historically been a sign that a movement is becoming more radical and street violence more likely.
© 2010 AFP