French workers take to the streets as airport fears ease
French trade unions staged another massive day of protests Saturday to defend their right to retire at 60, but fears of fuel shortages crippling Paris airports eased as supplies resumed.
Although government estimates of the turnout at the rallies suggested the movement might be losing steam, unions warned that strikes are spreading to more businesses and that a new nationwide protest would be held Tuesday.
Tension has been building since record demonstrations earlier this week with strikes in refineries cutting off fuel supplies to Paris airports and with high school students joining older workers to condemn pension reform moves.
But fears that planes would be grounded at France's main hub Charles de Gaulle eased as pipelines resumed supplies.
"The fuel supply of the Paris airports resumed Saturday afternoon, which keeps the threat of a shortage away from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle," said the head of the French civil aviation authority, Patrick Gandil.
Nantes in western France became the first airport in the country to cancel flights due to shortages, Gandil said, although a Nantes airport official said there had been no cancellations due to fuel shortages.
According to the interior ministry, 825,000 people took to the streets of towns and cities across the country on Saturday, the lowest official total since protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan began in September.
Unions estimated the turnout at "around three million", arguing that the numbers were around the same as a previous protest on a Saturday two weeks earlier, and labour leaders insisted the campaign would go on.
"The movement is taking root and growing in terms of the number of companies hit by various forms of strike as in the number of employees taking part in the action," the powerful CGT union said in a statement.
Sarkozy's works and pensions minister, Eric Woerth, insisted however that there had been a "significant drop-off" in the number of people taking part from the 1.2 million the government said had marched on Tuesday.
"There were, nevertheless, still lot of protesters. That underlines the government's duty to explain this reform better," he said.
Labour wants to force Sarkozy into backing down on his plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, which is in the final days of its journey through a parliament in which the right wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.
"We're prepared to demonstrate under the snow if it takes that long," Airbus worker Stephane Thibault, 37, told AFP at a demonstration in the southern city of Toulouse.
"We're mobilised, everyone seems motivated. With right-wing governments, we know you have to resist," he said.
Around 30 people were arrested in central Paris after a group of several hundred anarchists set rubbish bins on fire and threw smoke grenades, but they were prevented from interrupting the main march.
Strikes have shut down 10 out of France's 12 oil refineries, despite riot police being dispatched to fuel depots to protect deliveries amid panic buying.
The government has given oil companies permission to tap into their own emergency stocks, but has resisted calls to use government-controlled strategic reserves.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told RTL television that only 230 service stations out of 3,000 had run dry of fuel. "We have several weeks of fuel stocks," she insisted.
Nevertheless, reporters found several filling stations shutting down.
"We don't have any left and we don't know when the next delivery will come," said a petrol station worker at a hypermarket outside Paris who gave his name as Jean-Claude. "Petrol reserves are also extremely low."
Strikes against pension and port reforms at oil depots in the south of the country since September 27 have left 63 oil, gas and chemical tankers waiting off the Mediterranean coast on Saturday, Marseille port authorities said.
French truck drivers are also set to join the protests. "There's impatience, the guys are saying 'let's go'," said transport union chief Maxime Dumont.
Railway operator SNCF said that on average two out of three high-speed TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, although only one TGV in four outside the capital. The Paris metro was running normally.
© 2010 AFP