Police disperse strikers as French pensions battle escalates

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French police stormed through picket lines at oil refineries and fuel depots Friday as the battle against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pensions reform escalated hours before a decisive vote.

After days of strikes, riots and fuel shortages, the French Senate was due on Friday evening to hold a vote on the bill, which would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, but unions vowed more mass protests regardless.

Leading unions called a seventh day of nationwide demonstrations for Thursday and university students -- traditionally a radical force in French protests -- intensified their fight announcing an earlier march on Tuesday.

With open-ended strikes disrupting fuel supplies, French police broke up pickets besieging oil refineries and fuel depots and government officials ordered oilmen back to work, as Sarkozy's government hardened its stance.

Officers fired tear gas to disperse 200 demonstrators trying to block a fuel depot near the southern city of Toulouse, and hustled their way through to reopen the Grandpuits refinery, the main one serving the Paris region.

Strikers said three protesters were injured as the police went in, although at Grandpuits they did so without helmets or batons. Unions said a state official had issued them with a "requisition" ordering them back to work.

"They arrived in force and hit out violently. If anyone was acting like thugs, it wasn't the strikers," Julien Calmettes, a railworker and trade unionist who had come to join the picket, told AFP.

The leader of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, condemned "this judicially illegal and politically insane action".

The government said it acted to secure access to the refinery's fuel depot for emergency services and to protect "freedom of movement". Prime Minister Francois Fillon's office promised more action as half-term holidays begin.

"At a time when many French people wish to travel for the November 1 holiday weekend, it is in everyone's interest to make all necessary efforts to return the situation to normal, which will take several more days," it said.

Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said no nationwide fuel rationing was yet envisaged, but state representatives in two northern districts imposed limits on how much petrol each motorist could buy.

Meanwhile, turmoil continued around the country, as students staged another day of protests, workers stepped up fuel depot pickets and unions called two more days of mass strikes and street rallies for next week and the week after.

Hundreds of riot squad officers stood by in Lyon to try to prevent a repeat of Thursday's violence which saw security forces fight running battles with rampaging youths in the east-central city.

The protests have become the biggest battle of the right-wing president's first term. With his poll ratings at an all-time low, he has staked his credibility on a reform he says is essential to reduce France's public deficit.

Unions say the reforms unfairly penalise workers for the failures of global finance and have offered alternative proposals for cutting the deficit.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth said the bill would be approved in a Senate vote on Friday, clearing the last major hurdle, which means it could become law as early as next week.

On Thursday, at the end of another day of clashes between youths and police in cities across France, unions called for workers to join two new days of nationwide demonstrations next Thursday and on November 6.

France's main student union UNEF called on its members to take to the streets on Tuesday to show the government that the wider protest movement was not fizzling out during the mid-term school holidays.

An opinion poll published Friday by the BVA institute and broadcast by Canal Plus television, showed that most French voters back the strikes, by a margin of 69 percent to 29 -- but 52 percent oppose the blockade of refineries.

© 2010 AFP

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