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Success for Sarkozy rests on fading militancy

John Lichfield
Monday 25 October 2010 00:00 BST

French pension protests appeared to be running out of steam yesterday, without a clear victory for either the unions or President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The crippling petrol shortages threatened at the end of last week have eased temporarily, but could worsen again from today. Despite repeated tough talking from the government, no attempt has been made to force the reopening of the 12 French oil refineries which have been strike-bound for almost a fortnight.

President Sarkozy is hoping that the protests will fade – allowing refineries to reopen without confrontation – once a law raising the retirement age to 62 clears its final parliamentary hurdles on Wednesday. He could then claim to have "won" the dispute, but a new poll yesterday suggested the unpopular premier had lost even more ground.

An IFOP poll found only 5 per cent of people now fully supported Mr Sarkozy. Another 24 per cent were "somewhat" behind him. Whatever happens next, the endgame of the pension dispute is likely to be messy.

Moderate union federations and public opinion favour a winding down of militant actions when the pension reform becomes law. The moderate unions want to restrict protests to nationwide marches and 24-hour strikes, beginning on Thursday. They fear that the continuing fuel blockages and the spreading strikes by refuse collectors, will throw away a "public opinion victory" and improve Mr Sarkozy's chances of re-election in 2012.

However, hardline union branches in the oil and transport industries and in local government insist they will continue their strikes, blockages and flying pickets indefinitely.

Despite some improvement in petrol supplies over the weekend, the hard-liners believe the real impact of the refinery strikes has yet to bite.

Police have been forcing open fuel depots, but buffer stocks of petrol and diesel are almost exhausted. Unless refineries reopen, France could face an even more serious fuel crisis by the end of the week. Last Friday, the government seemed to have taken legal action to force open a large refinery at Grandpuits east of Paris. This decision has since been mired in legal challenges by the unions. It has emerged that the government order was intended only to free fuel stocks, not to force workers to restart the refinery itself.

The government said yesterday that a quarter of the country's filling stations were dry or short of fuel – an improvement on last week.

The worst problems were concentrated in the Paris area, Normandy and northern Auvergne. Other areas were almost back to normal. All but a handful of motorways service stations were open.

Another great unknown is the direction of the student protests. More have been called tomorrow. But with a 10-day school holiday starting last Friday, the government hopes the youth protests will collapse, reinforcing the impression of a deflating movement.

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