French police clear refinery picket as pensions law voted
French riot police broke up a key oil refinery picket line Friday just hours before the Senate was set to pass President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial bill hiking the retirement age to 62.
Police cleared a barricade of burning tyres at the entrance to Grandpuits refinery, which serves the Paris region, after the state issued an emergency decree ordering strikers there back to work to ease fuel shortages.
But turmoil escalated on the streets elsewhere, as students held 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.
Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said blockades at refineries and fuel depots had left one in five petrol stations without fuel as many familes prepare to go on holiday when schools close 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 the retirement age from 60 and to increase the latest threshold for full pension payments at 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 penalise workers, showed no sign of easing their campaign to bring Sarkozy to the negotiating table.
On Thursday, at the end of another day of clashes between youths and police in cities across France, they 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 unions said in a joint statement.
More than a million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the sixth day of action since early September.
An opinion poll published Friday by the BVA institute and broadcast by Canal Plus television, showed that a large majority of 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 that the goal of the blockade was not to "paralyse the country" but was "a cry for help to the government to open negotiations."
Strikers at Grandpuits itself vowed to resist the return to work order.
Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours Thursday before being cleared by police, causing tailbacks of several kilometres (miles).
Civil defence troops were sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where garbage collectors are on strike, while a similar strike in Toulouse intensified, with workers blocking access to dumps.
And even US pop star Lady Gaga has called off two Paris concerts set for the weekend "as a result of the logistical difficulties due to the strikes in France," her website said.
© 2010 AFP