Sarkozy sends police to open fuel depots blocked by strikes
President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in police Friday to reopen fuel depots blocked by strikers, as France's bitter battle over the right to retire at 60 escalated.
But even as police forced open the gates of some depots, strikers threw up new pickets at other distribution centres across the country to fight against moves to hike the retirement age to 62.
Sarkozy took the decision to send in the police in order to prevent fuel shortages amid reports of panic buying after eight of France's 12 refineries shut down operations because of the strikes, his office said.
Workers at a depot in Fos-sur-Mer, near the Mediterranean city of Marseille, did not resist when police intervened to reopen a facility that had had been shut since Thursday, unions said.
Police also reopened depots at Bassens and Lespinasse in the southwest and Cournon d'Auvergne in the centre of the country.
But strikers threw up fresh pickets in at least five fuel depots on Friday, at Caen and Ouistreham in the north, Le Mans and Vern-sur-Seiche in the northwest, and La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.
France's main unions have upped the ante in their fight against pension reform, calling for their members and supporters to hold the fifth in a series street rallies on Saturday and another one next Tuesday.
A nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations last Tuesday brought more than a million people on to the streets, and workers in some sectors have kept up their stoppages since then.
High school pupils have also demonstrated in several cities in what is traditionally interpreted in France as a sign of hardening resistance.
Pupils threw stones at police at two schools north of Paris on Thursday and officers clashed with youths and made arrests in the northern city of Lens.
On Friday more than 300 schools were affected by student protests, officials said, and in the Riviera city of Cannes a police officer was injured by a stone thrown during a student protest.
"There have never since 1995 been as many protestors ... from both the public and private sectors, and now from all generations," Bernard Thibault, the head of the powerful CGT union, told LCI television.
In 1995 then president Jacques Chirac backed down over pension reform after a three-week transport strike that paralysed France.
But despite the ongoing strikes and protests, the current government shows no sign of backing down on what is a cornerstone of the Sarkozy's reform agenda as he prepares for his likely re-election battle in 2012.
Key parts of the reform, part of efforts to rein in France's public deficit, have been definitively passed by the upper house Senate and the government hopes for it to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.
Unions and the Socialist opposition say the right-wing president is making workers pay an unfair share of the bill for the financial crisis and have made alternative proposals for funding the deficit.
© 2010 AFP