France clears fuel blocks as vote nears

France clears fuel blocks as vote nears

Senate to vote on pension reform soon

Fuel imports hit a record high on Tuesday, the government said, as it sought to circumvent a 24-day blockade of France’s largest oil port, near Marseille, where 51 oil tankers were idle in the Mediterranean, unable to dock. Nearly one in three of France’s 12,500 petrol stations was dry or running short.

Sarkozy said the government would not let the country be paralysed by protests against a pension reform that seeks to raise the minimum age of retirement to 62 from 60. “If this disorder is not ended quickly, the attempt to paralyse the country could have consequences for jobs by disrupting the functioning of the economy,” the president told a cabinet meeting. He vowed to push through his pension reform.

With a Senate vote expected by the end of the week, trade unions tried to tighten their grip on key sectors of the economy with a ninth day of refinery strikes, go-slows by truck drivers on main highways and work stoppages at regional airports.

Biggest challenge

The wave of protests, which drew at least one million people on Tuesday or 3.5 million according to unions, has become the biggest and most persistent challenge to austerity measures and economic reforms being enacted across Europe. Backed by a majority of voters, unions are trying to force Sarkozy — whose ratings are near record lows 18 months before a presidential election — to retreat on what is seen as the defining reform of his presidency.

Police have cleared access to 21 oil depots, though a barricade reformed at Donges on Wednesday.