French state breaks key fuel blockade
French riot police on Friday broke up a picket line blocking access to fuel stocks at a refinery serving the Paris area after the state issued an emergency decree ordering strikers there back to work.
Police took control of the entrance to the Grandpuits oil refinery, scuffling with pickets and dealing with a barricade of burning tyres, shortly after union leaders told reporters they had been served with the legal notice.
This order, known in France as a "requisition", can be issued by French authorities when they believe a strike poses a threat to public order. It compels strikers to return to work, under threat of prosecution.
The officers advanced without batons or teargas, clearing an 80-strong "citizens' cordon" of strikers and local supporters cordon with bare hands, although there were scuffles as the officers cleared the entrance-way.
"If anyone was acting like thugs, it wasn't the strikers," declared Julien Calmettes, a railworker and trade unionist who had come to join the picket.
Unions alleged that three protesters were hurt when kicked, although the interior ministry insisted that the situation had remained calm.
France's Environment and Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said in a radio interview that the police operation had not been designed to restart refining at Grandpuits, but to gain access to fuel already stocked there.
And, in a statement, the interior ministry said it would "in particular allow health and emergency services to complete there public service missions, and allow everyone else freedom of movement."
For two months France has been in the grip of a wave of protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and set the latest threshold for full pension payments at 67.
Over the past 11 days France's 12 oil refineries have been disrupted by strikes, and on Friday around one in five petrol stations had run out of fuel, Borloo told reporters.
The Senate was due to vote on Sarkozy's pensions reform bill later in the day, and it could be formally adopted into law as early as next week.
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.
A narrower 52 percent majority, however, oppose the blockade of refineries, which has caused fuel shortages and disrupted transport nationwide.
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.
© 2010 AFP