French strike prompts fuel warnings, school scuffles
France's government Thursday urged drivers not to rush to petrol pumps and truckers demanded emergency supplies as refineries shut down in a strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pensions reform.
Pupils meanwhile blockaded their schools and some near Paris threw stones at police who responded with non-lethal riot guns as officials warned protests against raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 could get out of hand.
With eight of France's 12 refineries shutting down operations, the truckers' federation FNTR wrote to the interior ministry demanding the "unblocking of reserve fuel supplies for road hauliers," it said in a statement.
"For several days, haulage businesses have been facing supply difficulties due to the shortage of diesel," it said.
High school pupils meanwhile demonstrated in several towns, police said, in what is traditionally interpreted in France as a sign of hardening resistance.
Pupils threw stones at police in scuffles at two schools north of Paris and police said one 16-year-old was taken to hospital after being injured by a Flash-Ball round fired by an officer.
"Some of the blockades risk degenerating into urban riots," said Daniel Auverlot, a senior education official for the district.
The government said 342 of France's senior high schools were disrupted. The UNL union put the figure at 500.
With Sarkozy vowing to push through the reform, currently under debate in the Senate, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau moved to calm fears of fuel shortages after reports of panic buying.
"There will be no shortage of petrol at the pump," said Bussereau said on LCI television. "We have as much as we need for at least a month."
The strikes hit 70 percent of France's refining capacity on Wednesday. Eight of its 12 refineries were shutting down operations -- a process that can take several days -- and output was severely disrupted at another three.
"If there is no more panic buying, we have all we need to get by," Bussereau said. "Above all I say to motorists: do not run to fill up your tank or your petrol supplies, you do not need to."
Even before the start of mass protests and strikes on Tuesday, workers at oil terminals in the Mediterranean port of Marseille had downed tools for two weeks against port reforms, hitting diesel supplies.
Protestors also blocked at least three fuel storage depots on Thursday, police and the CGT union said, indicating that the battleground was shifting.
Wednesday saw dozens of follow-on actions a day after a massive nationwide protest brought more than a million workers and students into the streets, with workers in refineries and some other sectors, including the railways, prolonging their strikes.
Unions were due to meet on Thursday afternoon to discuss their next move. The government has refused to budge on the reform, key parts of which have already been definitively passed by the Senate.
Disruption in some sectors eased Thursday, with transport in Paris running normally, but state rail company SNCF said national services were disrupted for the third day in a row, with only four in 10 high-speed trains running from Paris.
Sarkozy has vowed to push through the reform, part of efforts to rein in France's public deficit. The bill is a key part of his agenda as he is expected to run for re-election in 2012.
Unions and the Socialist opposition say Sarkozy is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have made alternative proposals for funding the deficit.
The government has shown no sign of backing down however and hopes to see the law passed by the end of the month.
© 2010 AFP