PARIS Oil refinery strikes in protest against French President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pension reform eased on Tuesday, with walkouts ending at several plants and unions sounding more open to talks with employers.
In another sign that long-running public protests against a two-year rise in the retirement age are losing steam, only a few hundred students showed up for street marches in Paris and other cities, the number reduced by half-term autumn holidays.
Sarkozy's flagship reform -- to make people work two years longer for their pensions -- has met fierce opposition in some of the most sustained protests in Europe against austerity measures designed to rein in swollen deficits.
The bill has passed through parliament and is on its way to being signed into law, and the powerful CFDT union says it is ready for talks on employment terms for youths and senior citizens, suggesting a corner has been turned in the dispute.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth and junior employment minister Laurent Wauquiez said they supported a suggestion made by CFDT head Francois Chereque to MEDEF employers' group head Laurence Parisot on France 2 television late on Monday that the two sides talk about terms of employment for youths and older people.
Sarkozy's social affairs adviser, Raymond Soubie, told Reuters he saw dialogue taking off as protest action winds down.
"For the future we need to find new themes and new methods. We need to be a bit inventive," he said. "I think, as Francois Chereque suggested and Laurence Parisot accepted, we need to restart negotiations between the unions and employers."
Fuel is now leaving four of France's dozen oil refineries as barricades have been lifted. Workers at three refineries have ended their two-week strike action, though port strikes were still preventing crude oil from reaching them.
Train services were nearly back to normal, and petrol pump shortages were easing as the government increased fuel imports from elsewhere in Europe.
"We are in a new phase but a new phase does not mean everything is over," Chereque said. "The president has the power to adjourn the debate, because a law can always be perfected."
SOCIALISTS SEEK LAST CHALLENGE
The Senate, with a few hundred students demonstrating peacefully outside, voted 177-151 to pass the latest version of the pension bill. The text goes to the lower house on Wednesday but its signing into law could be stalled until November as the opposition Socialists plan to challenge its legality with the constitutional court, which must also ratify it.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said strikers should now back down as the protest movement "no longer has any meaning."
Economy Minister Christine Lagarde, who has estimated the cost of the refinery strikes at 200-400 million euros a day in lost production, said that should not knock France's 2010 growth off course. She also praised the CFDT's gesture to MEDEF.
"I salute the return to reason and to dialogue," Lagarde told Radio Classique. "To put talks on the table, to discuss youth employment, senior citizen employment and examine the underlying problems that are worrying young and old people, that's really a turning point and I think it's a good thing."
Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said supply was back to normal at around 80 percent of the country's petrol stations.
The UFIP oil lobby said France had imported 100,000 tons of fuel products a day over the past week, up from 25,000 tons a day in normal times.
In the southern city of Marseille, garbage collectors went back to work after a two-week strike and began clearing some 10,000 tons of maggot-infested refuse piled in the streets.
A surge of families leaving town for half-term school holidays put extra pressure on petrol pumps at the weekend, fraying people's patience with the fuel shortages.
An Ifop opinion poll on Tuesday showed that 59 percent of those surveyed were opposed to fuel depot blockades.
Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings are at all-time lows 18 months before a presidential election, is keen to put the pension reform battle behind him and turn the page with some small social reforms and moves to appease unions, aides say.
The quiet student marches were a relief for the government which was embarrassed last week by TV images of fuel depot barricades and torched cars on the fringes of some protests.
Trade unions have called for two more days of nationwide strikes and street protests on October 28 and November 6.
Seven refineries remain blockaded and dock workers are still on strike at key oil ports at Marseille in the south and Le Havre in the north. Some 3.8 million tons of crude, refined products, chemicals and LPG gas were stuck in vessels off the Fos-Lavera terminal at Marseille.
Sarkozy's pension law will raise the minimum and full retirement ages to 62 from 60 and to 67 from 65 respectively, a measure he says is necessary to rein in a growing pension shortfall and reassure markets France can control its deficit.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy, Nicholas Vinocur, Gus Trompiz, Vicky Buffery and John Irish; editing by Tim Pearce)