French fuel blockades force thousands to call off their holidays

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One great French tradition, the right to strike, threatened to collide with another yesterday – the right to go on holiday.

As protests against pension reform continued to disrupt the country, the government hopes, and its opponents fear, that school half-term and All Saints' holidays starting tomorrow will dampen the ardour of protesters.

A widespread shortage of petrol and diesel is, however, forcing hundreds of thousands of French people to cancel, or reconsider, their holiday plans. Despite an order from President Sarkozy to break all union blockades of fuel distribution depots, one in four of the nation's 12,000 service stations remained dry last night.

Some union barricades at fuel depots were broken by police during the day. Elsewhere, new ones sprang up, including a mass picket of a "strategic" fuel depot which supplies aviation fuel to Marseille and Nice airports.

Farmers warned that, without diesel for their tractors, their October maize harvest could rot in the fields. Hoteliers and gîte-owners around the country also reported a sharp drop in bookings as would-be holidaymakers decided not to risk running out of fuel.

All the same, the sense of gathering crisis hanging over the country on Tuesday eased somewhat yesterday. There were renewed outbreaks of violence by disaffected youths from the poor, multi-racial suburbs in Lyon and in Nanterre, west of Paris, but the threat of the rapid spread to other areas, seen in 2005, appeared to have abated.

The "official" protest movement, led by the eight different French trades union federations, is to meet today to decide what to do next. The upper house of the French parliament, the Sénat, is wading through opposition attempts to filibuster final approval of the law which will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018. The legislation should now be passed by tomorrow night.

The three most moderate union federations are doubtful about how, or even whether, to continue the protest movement. They fear that the "unofficial" petrol blockages and the outbreaks of violence could puncture the once strong public opposition to the pension reform and give Mr Sarkozy a moral victory. They would prefer to suspend the protests and take a "democratic" route to reverse the reform by ousting Mr Sarkozy at the 2012 elections.

The other five federations are pushing for another day of public sector strikes and nationwide marches next Tuesday – the seventh since the beginning of September. They are also, to varying degrees, supporting the rolling "local" strikes by militant union branches in the petrol and rail industries.

The other great unknown is the sympathy protest movement by students at lycées. The 15 to 17-year-olds – nominally protesting against changes in pension law but demonstrating their anger with President Sarkozy more generally – are due to go on holiday for ten days from tomorrow. Will their protests continue during the holidays? There was some sign of the protest baton passing yesterday to university students who have no half-term break.

It is also unclear whether the violence by disaffected suburban youths – taking advantage of the pension protests, rather than supporting them – has definitely abated. There were brief clashes between police and hooded youths, some as young as 13 or 14, in the centre of Lyon and in Nanterre yesterday. In Nantes, a boy of ten was apprehended by police on the fringes of a violent protest and "taken home".

In the troubled multi-racial suburbs the arrival of the holidays might not calm tensions but bring even more youngsters on to the streets.