More strikes ramp up pressure on Sarkozy

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The Independent Online

French truck drivers said they planned to block key roads from yesterday evening and rail unions announced new strikes from today, putting fresh pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy over his unpopular pension reforms.

The action by truckers and rail workers, the continuing strikes by refinery workers and the threat of more street marches against the reforms before a crucial Senate vote make this a make-or-break week for the President.

Mr Sarkozy has vowed not to give in throughout months of opposition to his plan to raise the retirement age. The powerful unions, which have a history of resisting reform, have vowed to match his resolve.

"If we do nothing ... the system will explode," said the interior minister Brice Hortefeux, as the government kept up its appeal to a public that feels it is being unfairly punished for failures in the social-security system.

Petrol pumps are drying up, truckers said they would block key roads from last night, and after a day of disrupted trains yesterday, rail unions agreed new strikes for today that could halt two-thirds of regular trains and half the express TGV services.

A fresh nationwide march against the pension reform – which would raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively – was set for tomorrow, putting the President's determination to the test.

Panic-buying by motorists sucked dry petrol pumps across France, though many hoped for fresh deliveries this morning. The oil company Total said 350 to 400 of its petrol stations were suffering supply disruptions.

The UFIP oil-industry lobby has warned that strikes running since Tuesday at all France's 12 refineries could cause serious fuel supply problems by mid-week, meaning the government may have to look at tapping its emergency reserves.

Around Paris yesterday, closed petrol stations posted signs saying "Fuel Sold Out". Others were reported to be raising the price of the fuel they had left. The economy minister Christine Lagarde said that anyone inflating prices would be punished.

Shortages could hit transport much harder if truckers manage to clog major roads today, preventing fuel trucks, which themselves need fuel to run, from getting through.

Fears that Roissy Charles de Gaulle international airport could run out of fuel in the next 48 hours were dispelled by the transport minister Dominique Bussereau, who told Europe 1 radio a disrupted supply pipeline to the airport was working again. "There is no concern about Roissy. We can feed it (with fuel) for an unlimited period of time," he said.

The transport chaos could spur more protesters onto the street tomorrow when unions plan a last-ditch nationwide demonstration against Mr Sarkozy's bill a day before the Senate is due to vote on it. It could pass quickly into law after that.