Protesters cut off fuel pipeline

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French refinery workers cut off a fuel pipeline to Paris yesterday as protesters piled on pressure to halt President Nicolas Sarkozy's unpopular pension reform.

Police broke up blockades at fuel depots in southern France but protesters blocked a terminal at Orly airport in Paris and lorry drivers were expected to join the fray as momentum built for a day of street rallies today. A nationwide strike is planned on Tuesday, a day before the Senate is due to vote on a bill to make people work longer for their pensions.

The protests have become the biggest challenge facing the centre-right President, who is struggling with rock-bottom popularity ratings as he tries to appease financial markets by bringing the ballooning pension shortfall under control.

The number of rail workers on strike dropped to 15 per cent yesterday, from 40 per cent earlier in the week, but union leaders hope to galvanise the public for next week's action with the same force that saw a 1995 pension bill crushed by 24 days of protests. Next Tuesday's strike could hit various sectors.

"This movement is deeply anchored in the country," CGT union leader Bernard Thibault told LCI television. "The government is betting on this movement deteriorating, even breaking down. I think we have the means to disappoint them."

France's main trucking union called on lorry drivers to join next Tuesday's strike.