Sarkozy intervenes as fuel blockades continue

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President Nicolas Sarkozy infuriated militant unions yesterday by taking direct action to break a strike at one of France's largest oil refineries.

In the government's most direct confrontation with unions since fuel blockades began 11 days ago, police broke through picket lines at the Grandpuits refinery east of Paris after striking workers had been "requisitioned" to return to their jobs.

As the much-contested reform of the French pension system edged close to its final legislative hurdle last night, some union leaders accused Mr Sarkozy of trampling laws guaranteeing the right to strike. One accused him of behaving like the authoritarian, pro-Nazi, Vichy regime of 1940-44.

The virulent language masks a growing division in the union ranks. Two more days of nationwide protest marches and strikes have been ordered for next Thursday and on 6 November, but moderate unions are pushing for the fuel strikes, blockades and other open-ended actions by militant, local branches to be abandoned as soon as the pension reforms become law early next week.

A "clean" or neat end to the dispute seems unlikely. Militant union branches, even some local sections of moderate unions, are determined to continue the kind of "guerrilla" blockages at fuel depots, airports, railway stations and motorways seen in recent days. Public support for the protests climbed back to 69 per cent in one poll yesterday after dipping below 60 per cent earlier in the week.

On the other hand, support for a rolling strike on the railways diminished to fewer than one in 10 workers yesterday. The state railway company, the SNCF, expected to run an almost complete service for the start of the half term and All Saints holidays last night and this morning.

The government was still struggling yesterday to re-establish fuel supplies to petrol stations, farmers and road hauliers. Around one in four of the country's 12,000 service stations was still reported to be out of fuel last night.