French truckers blocked highways and officials deployed police to prevent strikers from cutting fuel supplies as the standoff hardened over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the retirement age to 62.
With all the country’s refineries on strike, industry groups said about 15 percent of service stations are dry, and the Interior Ministry activated a crisis committee to manage energy supplies.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the government won’t give in to demands that it suspend parliamentary debate on the pension bill and keep the minimum retirement age at 60. Sarkozy’s ministers sought to guarantee fuel supplies, as police moved to ensure access to storage sites amid a second week of refinery strikes.
“When there is a blockade, we will take the necessary measures,” Industry Minister Christian Estrosi said on RTL radio today. “We respect the right to strike, not the right to put up blockades.”
Unions have called for a day of protests tomorrow, to be accompanied by the fourth national strike in two months. The Senate is scheduled to complete passage of the pension bill the following day. France’s eight major unions will meet on Oct. 21 to decide how to continue their movement.
France’s civil-aviation authority has asked airlines tomorrow to cancel half their flights from Paris’ second airport at Orly, and 30 percent at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, the largest. Air France SA said it will limit cancelations to domestic and European destinations.
About 15 percent of France’s 12,000 service stations have run out of some or all types of fuel, Alexandre de Benoist, head of the Independent Fuel Importers Union, or UIP, said by telephone. “There are stocks but we can’t get at them in some cases because of blockages at fuel depots,” he said.
Total SA, Europe’s biggest refiner, said about 400 service stations out of the 4,000 it operates in France had run out of some products. Diesel, which powers 77 percent of cars sold in France, is the product with the tightest supply, they said.
Television stations throughout the weekend showed long lines at service stations and carried interviews with exasperated motorists.
Estrosi also said the country isn’t running out of fuel. “France has enough refined products in sufficient quantities that everyone will be guaranteed supply for many more weeks,” he said.
Today, truckers partially blocked the main north-south A6 highway between Lyon and Paris, as well as south of Lille in the north of the country. They also blocked industrial zones near Le Mans and Bordeaux, LCI television reported.
Fillon and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said in separate television interviews last night that they won’t allow truckers to block the country’s 200 fuel depots.
The government today ordered 30 workers at Total’s Grandpuits refinery near Paris back to work to transport fuel, according to the CGT union, which protested the move.
Paris’s airports are being supplied with jet fuel, and fewer than 2 percent of France’s service stations have run dry, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said on Europe1 radio.
The lower National Assembly has already passed the pension legislation, which raises the minimum retirement age to 62, and the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. The government says it’s still open to some small changes and has already made concessions that will allow people in difficult jobs as well as working mothers with three children to retire earlier.
‘Key to Financing’
“Raising the retirement age is the key to the financing of the system,” Fillon said in an interview on TF1 television yesterday. “The debate and vote in the Senate will go ahead.” He said he won’t allow the strikes to “suffocate” the economy.
Under Sarkozy’s proposal, by 2018 a person would need to work 41 ½ years to retire with a full pension at 62, and otherwise would have to wait until they reach 67. Germany has decided to raise its retirement age to 67 from 65, though Germans can retire on a reduced pension at 63 if they’ve worked 35 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The retirement age in Italy is 65, though working 40 years guarantees a full pension at any age.
In the U.S., what the OECD calls the “normal” retirement age is increasing to 67 from 66, though early retirement with reduced benefits is available from the age of 62.
In France, the average retiree gets a net 65 percent of their average qualifying wage in government pension payouts, compared with 61.5 percent in Germany, 47 percent in the U.S. and 44 percent in Britain, according to the OECD.
Sarkozy’s government says the measures are needed to balance the pension system’s budget by 2018. The overhaul is part of its struggle to reduce the overall deficit. This year, the gap will stand at 7.7 percent of gross domestic product and Sarkozy plans to cut it to 6 percent next year.
Staff at all 12 French refineries are on strike, Eric Sellini, a CGT union representative, said yesterday by telephone. “No crude is arriving, no refined products are leaving,” he said. Six of the refineries are run by Total SA.
Excluding the mothballed Dunkirk refinery, France is capable of processing 1.84 million barrels of crude a day, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The port of Marseille has been on strike for two weeks because of an unrelated protest. That movement has now spread to other ports because of the pension issue. The Marseille port said in a statement yesterday that 61 merchant ships are blocked, including 29 crude-oil tankers, 18 tankers of refined products, and 10 tankers carrying natural gas.
Paris commuter trains and local rail services throughout France ran at half service today, the national railway company SNCF said, while one out of two scheduled high-speed trains operated. In Paris, metros and buses have run normally for the past three days.
Thalys trains to Brussels were disrupted today by an unrelated strike in Belgium.
Students have increasingly joined the protests, and students at 400 out of the country’s roughly 3,000 high-schools were protesting today, according to student union UNL.
Since the unions’ first protest strike on Sept. 7, the risk premium on French bonds has increased. Investors demand 39 basis points more to buy 10-year French bonds than comparable German securities, compared with 30 basis points on Sept. 6.
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