France seeks to calm fuel fears as strike momentum builds

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The French government sought Sunday to calm fears of nationwide petrol and aviation fuel shortages as strikes against pension reform began to bite two days ahead of another wave of mass protests.

Officials tried to head off panic buying of petrol amid the ongoing strikes and protests that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets for the latest day of action against President Nicolas Sarkozy's key reform on Saturday.

Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau told Europe 1 radio that with 10 out of France's 12 oil refineries shut by strike action, panic buying had led to a 50 percent jump in petrol sales last week and hundreds of stations running dry.

French Oil Industry Association (UFIP) head Jean-Louis Schilansky said service stations were now being replenished after the government authorised the use of extra-large 44-tonne trucks, usually banned for environmental reasons.

"We have 'almost normal' means to deliver to petrol stations," Schilansky told AFP.

The government has given oil companies permission to tap into their own emergency stocks, but has resisted calls to use government-controlled strategic reserves ahead of Tuesday's mass protest day, the sixth in as many weeks.

But unions slammed the management's reopening of a crucial pipeline bringing fuel to Paris' Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, which officials warned could have run empty as early as Monday, saying untested fuel was flowing to planes.

"Turning the pumps on again was done secretly this morning around 7:00 am by a handful of managers who are absolutely not trained for this kind of operation, at the ministry's behest," said Philippe Saunier of the powerful CGT union.

"This creates a very big safety problem," the union representative in the northwestern port of Le Havre told AFP.

"Under these conditions, the strikers, who up to now were ensuring the safety of the site have decided to let management face up to its responsibilities. Safety is no longer ensured an the oil depot.

"The aviation fuel that was pumped was neither sampled nor analysed," as it should be. "Its quality is unknown," Saunier said.

France's powerful road transport workers are to enter the strike from Monday, possibly to be joined by armoured van drivers, which would hit money deliveries to cash machines.

"Truckers are happy to join the action. Next week is going to be decisive, everybody knows that," said the head of the CFDT union's transport branch, Maxime Dumont.

Truckers have vowed to begin nationwide disruption early Monday, possibly also at oil depots or "strategic sites."

Unions have said their protests may not end even after the pension reform law raising minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 is passed by the Senate this week, and planes have been told to refuel abroad before returning to France.

"A plane flying to Berlin from Roissy will fill up, while normally it would have made the return journey without refuelling," said the transport minister, Bussereau.

Shortages at Nice airport, in the southeast, could be resolved by bringing fuel in from nearby Italy while shortages at Nantes, in the west, would be "resolved quickly", he said.

Civil aviation head Patrick Gandil said Saturday that Nantes was the first French airport to cancel flights due to shortages, although a Nantes airport official denied there had been any cancellations caused by fuel shortages.

Former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius meanwhile denied government statements that the protests were waning, telling Radio J that Tuesday "will be the most important day."

He also said he expected the government to take action against petrol companies that were raising their prices amid the shortages, what he called an "absolutely scandalous practice."


© 2010 AFP

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