French strike sparks street clashes, fuel warnings

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French youths clashed with police Thursday and oil refinery shutdowns prompted warnings of fuel shortages as unions called a fifth national strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pensions reform.

Pupils 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 petrol industry association urged government to release emergency stocks from the strategic reserve and called for protestors blocking fuel depots to be removed.

France's main unions upped the ante in the fight against the reform meanwhile, calling for their members and supporters to hold the fifth in a series of strikes and street rallies on October 19.

The latest national protest on Tuesday brought more than a million people on to the streets but the government showed no sign of backing down.

High school pupils demonstrated in several towns Thursday, in what is traditionally interpreted in France as a sign of hardening resistance, police said.

Pupils threw stones at police at two schools north of Paris and officers clashed with youths and made arrests in the northern city of Lens. Thousands of pupils marched peacefully in Toulouse, Bordeaux and other cities.

Police said a 16-year-old was taken to hospital after being injured by a Flash-Ball round fired by an officer in Montreuil, one of the Paris suburbs.

"Some of the blockades risk degenerating into urban riots," said Daniel Auverlot, a senior education official for the district.

Dominique Voynet, mayor of Montreuil, condemned "police violence against high school pupils," in a statement.

"This is provocation that would appear to be aimed at provoking incidents and transforming a necessary democratic debate into a spiral of violence and confrontation," said Voynet, a Green party member who opposes the reform.

The government said 342 of France's senior high schools were affected. The UNL union put the figure at 900.

With Sarkozy vowing to push through the reform, currently under debate in the Senate, by the end of the month, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau moved to calm fears of fuel shortages after reports of panic buying.

"If there is no more panic buying, we have all we need to get by," Bussereau said on LCI television. "Above all I say to motorists: do not run to fill up your tank or your petrol supplies, you do not need to."

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.

The head of the national federation of petroleum distributors, Jean-Louis Schilansky, told AFP that his members had just over 10 days' worth of regular stocks in their depots.

Protestors blocked at least three fuel storage depots on Thursday, police and the CGT union said, and Schilanksy urged the government to clear them.

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.

A massive nationwide protest brought more than a million workers and students into the streets on Tuesday, with workers in refineries and some other sectors, including the railways, prolonging their strikes.

The government has refused to budge on the reform, key parts of which have been definitively passed by the Senate.

The reform, part of efforts to rein in France's public deficit, is a key part of Sarkozy's agenda as he is expected to run for re-election in 2012.

Unions and the Socialist opposition say he 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

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