October 16, 2010 / 5:49 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 3-French protesters rally over pension reform

* Turnout dips at marches but strikes set to continue

* Refinery strike threatens airport, hits petrol stations

* Fresh protest on Tuesday to keep pressure on Sarkozy

(Adds march numbers, airport fuel squeeze)

By Gerard Bon

PARIS, Oct 16 (Reuters) - A million or more people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the latest protest of a campaign against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s flagship pension reform, and refinery strikes squeezed fuel at airports.

Turnout was down by several hundred thousand from the last weekend rally against Sarkozy’s push to raise France’s retirement age, and there were no immediate reports of serious scuffles.

Five-day old rail and refinery strikes piled pressure on the centre-right government, however, by disrupting travel.

France’s civil aviation authority said Charles de Gaulle international airport had just two days’ worth of fuel in stock after a walkout at a refinery in northern France cut the flow through a key pipeline to Paris. France’s other international airport, Orly, has fuel reserves for several days.

Sarkozy is determined to stand firm on his plans to raise the retirement age and stem a ballooning pension shortfall, but unions view the reform as unfair and have staged weeks of demonstrations to try to force him to back down.

France’s CGT and CFDT unions said between 2.5 million and 3 million people joined street demonstrations from Toulouse to Rouen, down from the last weekend march on Oct. 2 and also from a Tuesday protest unions said was joined by 3.5 million.

The government counted 850,000 marchers, down from 899,000 on Oct. 2. The biggest crowds were in Paris, but the mood was upbeat with music blaring, horns honking and chanting.

“I think the French people have understood that pension reform is essential and necessary,” Labour Minister Eric Woerth told French television.

Unions have set their next big protest rally and nationwide strike for Tuesday, the day before a Senate vote on the pension bill, whose key clauses have already passed through parliament.

Open-ended strikes at France’s 12 refineries since last Tuesday threaten to cause the government a huge headache if fuel dries up at France’s main airports. Orly already had to ground some flights this week due to striking runway workers.

The CGT union coordinator for oil company Total (TOTF.PA), Charles Foulard, told Reuters workers at Total refineries would not return to work unless the government retracts the pension bill. “There is toughening of resolve,” he said. “The truck drivers are going to join us ... We will go till the end.”


The refinery strikes, combined with unrelated strikes at Mediterranean oil ports and temporary fuel depot blockades, have hit supply at nearly 2 percent of France’s petrol stations.

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde urged people not to panic over fuel. The government has said it has ample fuel stocks that can keep the nation running for at least a month.

“We have reserves,” Lagarde told France’s RTL radio, adding supply problems had affected 230 petrol stations out of a total 13,000 in the country. “People mustn’t panic,” she said.

Sarkozy has vowed to push ahead with his reform, saying it is the only way to stop a 32 billion euro ($44.7 billion) annual pension shortfall ballooning to 50 billion by 2020.

Lagarde told RTL that gradually lifting the minimum and full retirement ages by two years, to 62 and 67 respectively, would be less painful than raising pension contributions or trimming benefits for the 15 million people in France now on pensions.

Unions say they want a say in deciding a pension overhaul.

“We have several million people in the street who support us and believe in us,” said CFDT union leader Francois Chereque. “The only one blocking the country is the government.”

French authorities were on alert for signs of violence on Saturday. Police in Paris had orders to not use rubber bullets, after a youth protester was injured by one during the week.

France has a tradition of overpowering unpopular government proposals through street militancy, though polls suggest people are coming to terms with the fact that delaying retirement, in line with other European countries, is becoming inevitable.

Unions plan to meet on Thursday, a day after the Senate vote on the pension bill is expected, to discuss further action.

Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry urged the government to stop the bill’s passage and open the issue up to a wider debate. (Additional reporting by Patrick Vignal and Nina Sovich; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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