French families face petrol shortages as holidays begin

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French families faced fuel shortages at the start of half-term holidays Saturday, hit by strikes against raising retirement from 60 to 62 the day after the Senate backed the fiercely-contested reform.

Unions showed no sign of giving up and have vowed more protests in their months-long struggle against the bill whose passage into law expected next week the government hopes will end protests that brought millions onto the streets.

The vote late Friday all but sealed the reform, the centrepiece of President Nicolas Sarkozy's agenda, and government expects the text to be reconciled with a lower house version before being definitively adopted on Wednesday.

The arrival of the school holidays provided a breather for the government, with students increasingly involved in protests ahead of the break, but families wanting to travel still suffered fuel shortages.

Six out of 10 filling stations were dry or had run out of at least one fuel in western France and a third in the Paris region, Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told journalists.

Seven of France's 100 administrative areas or departments were short of fuel at midday on Saturday after a spate of panic buying brought on by anti-reform industrial action that closed all 12 French oil refineries, he said.

Motorway service stations have been made a priority.

Secretary of State for Transport Dominique Bussereau insisted motorway supplies were "perfect," but Borloo admitted that "four to five percent" of France's 300 motorway service stations were still awaiting deliveries.

Borloo could not say when the situation might be back to normal.

"It's difficult to say when 100 percent of refineries are stopped," Borloo said. "Everything depends on road users."

National rail operator SNCF said that eight out of 10 high-speed TGV trains were running, although only one in two provincial express trains were working.

Opponents to Sarkozy's key reform bill say the measures unjustly penalise workers for the failures of global finance and have called instead for tax rises on banks and the rich.

More than a million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the sixth day of nationwide action since early September, and this week rioters burned, smashed and looted while police fired tear gas and arrested hundreds.

The government went on the offensive as fuel began running out nationwide, ordering workers at the key Grandpuits refinery that supplies Paris to return to work.

Riot police were sent in to clear pickets blocking the site early Friday, but staff who had been ordered back to work downed tools again overnight after a judge ruled the government's "requisitioning" had been illegal.

The judge said the prefect, or central government's local representative, had erred by requisitioning virtually all the workers at the refinery, which meant the site was running normally.

The authorities immediately issued another requisition order at the plant that supplies the Paris region with 70 percent of its fuel, which the unions were appealing against on Saturday.

The interior ministry said that the new requisition only ordered to work a "strictly necessary" number of staff and that trucks were taking fuel from the refinery's depot.

A month-old dockers' strike in the Mediterranean port of Marseille meant that two cruise ships unable to dock on Saturday had to ferry passengers to shore.

More than 70 boats were anchored off the port on Friday, either unable to unload cargo or to refuel.

Despite the Senate passing the law, 63 percent of French still support two new days of action called for by unions on October 28 and November 6, an opinion poll for regional newspaper Dimanche Ouest-France showed.

Nevertheless, 53 percent of French think that extending the date of retirement is acceptable, the Ifop poll carried out on October 21 and 22 said.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth called Saturday for the protests to end once the measure passes into law. "Once the law is voted, it must be applied," Woerth told Le Figaro daily.


© 2010 AFP

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