Police break fuel blockades in France strike

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Police cleared protestors blockading French fuel depots on Wednesday as the government tried to limit the economic damage from prolonged strikes against its plan to raise the retirement age to 62.

A third of France's filling stations ran dry on Tuesday, the government said, while cars were set alight and police fired tear gas at rioters on the sidelines of protests that brought a million people into the street.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said three depots were peacefully reopened overnight and in the early hours, as had been ordered at a crisis meeting by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who refuses to back down on his unpopular reform.

"The current situation cannot continue without serious consequences for our life as a society and our economy but also for the health and safety of our citizens," Hortefeux told a news conference on Wednesday.

"We will continue to unblock these depots as much as necessary," Hortefeux said. "We will not let the country be blockaded and we will not let the thugs go unpunished," he added, referring to those arrested in street riots.

Protestors meanwhile blockaded several more depots and at one of the three that was cleared, in Donges in western France, vehicles promptly blocked the access roads after the blockade at the entrance was lifted.

Ongoing disruption was forecast on the national railways with a third of TGV express trains cancelled, operator SNCF said, more than a week after unions in several strategic sectors of the economy launched open-ended strikes.

At France's main air hub, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, unions announced blockades of access roads. Airport authorities said flights were normal on Wednesday morning but warned of disruptions later in the day.

A quarter of flights were cancelled at Paris's second biggest airport, Orly.

Sarkozy's reform would raise the standard retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full benefits threshold from 65 to 67, in what the government says is an essential measure to cut France's public deficit.

Unions and political opponents say it places an unfair burden on workers and have proposed alternative ways to cut the deficit.

The unions are to meet again Thursday to decide their next action, the same day the Senate aims to hold its definitive vote on the bill.

Business associations were anxious about the impact of drawn-out strikes.

"After three years of economic crisis, we do not have the means today to endure long strikes," the head of the CGPME small and medium business association Jean-Francois Roubaud said on Europe 1 radio Tuesday.

Television news was dominated on Tuesday by scenes of clashes between riot police and youths in Lyon and suburbs of Paris, which Hortefeux blamed on a rogue minority of "thugs" who joined ongoing protests by high school pupils.

The minister, who heads a crisis cell to deal with the disruption, said police had arrested 1,423 "rioters" were arrested over the past week.

Hundreds of schools remained blockaded in the strike, the government and a schools union said.

CNIR traffic info service counted a dozen roadblocks or go-slows on Wednesday morning after truckers joined in the strike action this week. Rubbish piled up in the streets of Marseille due to a strike by collectors.

A poll by BVA published Wednesday said 59 percent of the French supported a continuation of the strike even if the Senate passes the reform this week.

© 2010 AFP

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