French Police Unblock Fuel Depots as Labor Unrest Cuts Supplies

Police moved in to unblock oil depots across France as the government authorized the release of fuel stockpiles to counter potential shortages caused by striking refinery and port workers.

Protesters were ordered by police to lift barricades preventing access to a depot in Fos-sur-Mer near Marseille today, letting trucks deliver fuel, a spokeswoman for the Prefecture des Bouches-du-Rhone said. Two other depots were similarly cleared, one near Bordeaux, the CGT union said.

“The government has sent the police,” said Charles Foulard, a CGT leader. “It has decided to crush the protest.” All French refineries have joined the strike, he said.

French refinery and oil terminal workers have extended a strike led by the union over a government plan to raise the retirement age and a local dispute in Marseille over a 2008 port overhaul. The wider strike that this week disrupted transport, schools, power supplies and other public services, is now largely confined to the oil and port sectors.

Unions voted to strike again on Oct. 19, the eve of a Senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bill to raise the retirement age. Sarkozy has refused to back down from plans to increase the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60. Unions have walked out three times since mid-September.

“The government has to address the fundamentals of the problem,” CGT secretary general Bernard Thibault said in on LCI television today. “We aren’t trying to cause fuel shortages.” He said the government has to withdraw its pension overhaul and not use “excessive” police force, adding, that “this isn’t the way we will get out of this impasse.”

Oil Reserves

The retirement reform bill has been approved by the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, while the Senate has approved key planks, such as raising the minimum age for a pension to 62 from 60 and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. A final vote on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 20.

The strike, which brought as many as 1.23 million people to the streets across the country on Oct. 12, is now evident mostly in the rush to gas stations to stock up on fuel, television reports showed.

The government will release fuel reserves held by oil companies to service stations, the National Road Haulage Federation, or FNTR and the refiners’ group Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, known as UFIP, said yesterday.

“While France has not drawn down emergency stocks in response to this situation, stocks held for emergency purposes have been utilized in a technique referred to as ‘re- localization,’” the International Energy Agency said. “Reserves in the needed area are swapped with commercial stocks held elsewhere in France such that the total emergency reserves do not change.”

Industrial Action

Eight of the country’s 12 crude-processing plants are being halted because of the strike, the UFIP said. France had oil stocks equivalent to 95 days of net imports at the end of July, according to a report by the IEA this week. About 60 days of supplies are held as public stocks and the rest as strategic stocks “held by industry for emergency use,” it said.

Fuel use climbed 50 percent this week as motorists rushed to fill cars, according to Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau.

Meanwhile, workers at Le Havre oil terminal joined a strike that has stopped crude imports through Marseille, blocking supplies to the country’s 12 refineries, the CGT said. The work stoppage at the Marseille oil import hub to contest plans by the government to restructure operations entered its 19th day.

Oil Companies

Total SA, Europe’s biggest refiner, has started to halt units at Donges, Feyzin, Grandpuits, Normandy and La Mede as a result of the strike. Its plant near Dunkirk was halted last year and is slated for closure. LyondellBasell Industries NV said yesterday it started to halt its Berre refinery in southern France because of a lack of crude supplies as did Petroplus Holdings AG at its Petit Couronne plant.

Exxon Mobil Corp. won’t stop its refinery at Fos at the end of the week, according to Catherine Brun, a company spokeswoman. Deliveries were halted by a strike yesterday, she said.

The strike at the port of Marseille’s Fos and Lavera oil terminals, which has blocked crude oil imports, left 60 vessels stranded as of yesterday. These included 45 crude and refined fuel tankers and 10 gas transporters, according to a statement from the port.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tara Patel in Paris at tpatel2@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Will Kennedy at wkenned3@bloomberg.net

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