October 24, 2010 / 4:53 PM / 9 years ago

Holidays to suffer as French petrol pumps run short

PARIS (Reuters) - A strike at French oil refineries over pension reform disrupted school holidays and sporting events over the weekend, with a quarter of petrol stations short of fuel and popular resorts likely to be particularly hit.

A woman walks past a Total gas station displaying a sign which reads, "Out of Gas" in Paris October 22, 2010. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Raymond Soubie, a senior adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, told Europe 1 radio the regions of Brittany, Loire-Atlantic and Auvergne in the northwest and center would be among the worst affected by the shortages, which come at the start of a 12-day school holiday.

Several football matches in the north over the weekend had to be postponed.

Sarkozy scored a victory on Friday by getting his bill to make people work two more years for their pensions through the Senate, but striking refinery workers are putting a strain on businesses and daily life and show no sign of backing down.

Workers at two refineries have voted to stay on strike next week, and workers at the other plants will meet in the days ahead to decide their course of action, CGT union official Charles Foulard at energy company Total said on Sunday.

“The movement continues,” Foulard told Reuters. “Everything will be debated among the workers and will depend on the mobilization of the workers.”

Rail strikes are also set to carry on next week, although at least half of all services will likely run.

Two-thirds of French people oppose the pension law and have put up some of the fiercest resistance in Europe to austerity measures aimed at reining in huge deficits.

Sarkozy sent in police last week to break up blockades at fuel depots and the government battled to get diesel and petrol out to motorway service stations before a flood of families hit the road this weekend.

COMPLEX LOGISTICS

Protests are complicating the government’s efforts to restore normalcy to the country’s energy sector. Soubie said how complex it was to improve the distribution situation quickly.

“It is a very difficult logistical problem,” he said, adding: “... it will improve very gradually.”

France’s main oil refinery in the northwest, in Donges, is blocked and operations at a nearby fuel depot have also been interrupted at times this week, hindering deliveries to the entire region.

The government on Friday obtained a court order to require four employees at the fuel depot to go back to work to get the operation running again.

A union official in the port of Nantes said 300 protesters have prevented a tug boat from towing a tanker carrying 10,000 liters of oil up the Loire River to the Donges fuel depot.

The tugboat will probably have to wait for the next tide when police authorities may intervene to restore order, he said.

An Ifop opinion poll published in the weekly Journal du Dimanche on Sunday showed Sarkozy’s popularity fell by three points from last month to 29 percent.

When the refinery strikes started nearly two weeks ago France had more than three months’ worth of strategic reserves held in industry and government depots, but industry supplies have already been tapped into.

Fuel depots were already depleted because of a separate strike by dockers at France’s biggest oil port, at Marseille.

The legislation to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively is expected to be adopted by the middle of next week, but unions vowed to fight on with nationwide strikes and marches on October 28 and November 6.

The state rail service SNCF said 8 out of 10 high-speed trains were running over the weekend, although there were fewer on regional and smaller train lines.

A union of rail workers said on Sunday that roughly 20 percent of employees were on strike over the weekend as it called on its members to “maintain pressure” and mobilize for the national strike on Thursday.

Additional reporting Guillaume Frouin; editing by Catherine Bremer and Sonya Hepinstall

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