French riot police forced open a strategic fuel refinery Friday that had been a bastion of resistance to President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age to 62, pushing striking workers aside with shields in a bid to end gasoline shortages.
French riot police forced open a strategic fuel refinery Friday that had been a bastion of resistance to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to raise the retirement age to 62, pushing striking workers aside with shields in a bid to end gasoline shortages.
The operation came as the French Senate prepared to vote on a pension reform at the heart of the unions’ anger, after the government short-circuited a protracted debate.
The Senate is near certain to approve the measure – which raises the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 – later Friday, despite months of strikes and protests that reached a climax of radical action and scattered clashes this week.
The Interior Ministry said the operation at the fuel refinery succeeded “without incident,” but the CGT union said three workers were injured in the melee. Emergency workers brought stretchers to the depot in Grandpuits east of Paris, the closest source of gasoline supplies to the capital.
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Helmeted officers in body armor descended on the refinery and depot at Grandpuits overnight, confronting workers who shoved back and shouted union slogans as they sought to keep police from opening the gates to the depot.
Police were carrying out regional authorities’ orders to make strikers return to work at the site, run by oil giant Total SA.
Workers have been camped for 10 days in front of the site, blocking access and contributing to punishing fuel shortages. As of Friday, about 20 percent of France’s service stations were still empty, down from 40 percent a few days ago, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said Friday, according to his office.
Sarkozy ordered regional authorities to intervene and force open depots, accusing the strikers of holding ordinary people and the French economy “hostage.”
Sarkozy says overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all. It’s a choice many European governments are facing as populations live longer and government debts soar.
However, French unions say retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right, and that the working class is unfairly punished by the pension reform. They fear this reform will herald the end of an entire network of welfare benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.
The Senate neared the end of a debate on the reform bill Friday that has taken more than 128 hours, the second-longest debate in 30 years in the Senate. Legislators – mostly opposition Socialists – submitted a staggering 1,237 amendments. Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party and its allies have a majority in the house, and dismissed nearly all amendments.
After Friday’s Senate vote, the final text goes back to both houses for final formal approval, which is expected next week.
The government’s firm stance has further angered the most entrenched protesters.
“We are outraged, scandalized,” said Charles Foulard, a union leader at the Grandpuits depot. Foulard has become a symbol of the union movement against the retirement reform.
The government regional representative, prefect Jean-Michel Devret, accompanied police to the picket line.
“I want things to go smoothly and the barricade must be lifted. And that’s what we will do,” he told AP Television News.
Police also broke a picket line early Friday at a fuel depot in Grand Quevilly in western France. Police forced it open earlier this week, but defiant protesters had blocked it again Thursday.
The gas shortages and other disruptions caused by the conflict have hit many sectors of the economy, and Global Equities’ head economist Marc Touati said it could wipe out between 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points of economic growth.
The government predicts economic growth of 2 percent next year, after 1.5 percent in 2010.
While many in France are used to strikes and protests, patience started wearing thin this week as gasoline supplies dwindled. Families were particularly worried ahead of school vacations that start this weekend.
Paris taxi driver Jerome Nourry resorted to getting gas in neighboring Belgium.
“We have to be inventive. I drove a customer to Belgium yesterday, so I took advantage (of the trip) to put some gas in a container,” he said in Paris on Friday morning. “We do what we can, in order to be able to work.”
Unions blame the government for letting tensions build so high, and announced two more days of protest nationwide, next week and the week after. The bold action suggested that opponents believe they have the power to force the government’s hand.
Violence on the margins of student protests have added a new dimension to the volatile mix.
Police vans and water cannon trucks stood ready Friday in Lyon, where city workers cleaned up scattered glass from rampages the day before. Police used tear gas and water cannon against youths hurling bottles and overturning cars.
“It is not troublemakers who will have the last word in a democracy,” Sarkozy told local officials in central France, promising to find and punish rioters.
The protests have also blocked hundreds of ships at the Mediterranean port of Marseille, and even forced Lady Gaga to cancel Paris concerts.
Duclos reported from Grandpuits. AP writer Greg Keller and AP Television News reporters Jonathan Shenfield in Lyon and Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.