French energy supply hit as blockades continue
France is facing an acute energy crisis as industrial actions against contentious pension reform plans continue. Roughly a quarter of fuel stations have run dry and electricity production has been severely affected.
With approximately a quarter of French filling stations running low on fuel, the French energy crisis is deepening. Workers have set up blockades at fuel depots across France to voice their opposition to pension reform which will see the national retirement age rise from 60 to 62-years-old.
More than 3,000 service stations out of nearly 12,500 in France had completely run out of fuel on Wednesday, according to the government.
Elsewhere, activists blocked access to Marseille's airport in the south of France Thursday, unions and airport officials said. Demonstrators carrying armbands from the CGT and FSU unions occupied a key roundabout leading to the airport to stop vehicles passing. The airport stated however that there there were no plans as yet to cancel flights.
The government also reports that fuel imports have hit a record high as it tries to keep the country moving despite the 24-day blockade of France's largest oil port, near Marseille, where 51 oil tankers lay idle in the Mediterranean, unable to dock.
President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in police to clear access to barricaded French fuel depots and restore the supply, but workers once again blocked access to the depots shortly after the police intervention.
France has also been forced to import electricity equivalent to the output of six nuclear reactors because of anti-pension reform industrial action at its power stations.
During one hour in the middle of the day, France imported 5,990 megawatts of electricity, or six reactors' worth, said the Web site of the RTE electricity network, a subsidiary of national electricity supplier EDF.
The wave of protests -- which drew at least one million people onto the streets Tuesday according to authorities or 3.5 million according to unions -- has become the biggest and most persistent challenge to austerity measures and economic reforms being enacted across Europe.
Labour unions have tightened their grip on key sectors of the economy with a ninth day of refinery strikes, go-slows by truck drivers and work stoppages at regional airports.
On Wednesday, workers opposed to a higher retirement age blocked roads to airports around France on Wednesday, resulting in passengers dragging their suitcases on foot along the breakdown lanes on main roads as they tried to get to the airport.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said both the strikes and the violence were having an economic impact. "I'm calling on people to be responsible, in particular those who are having a roaring time blocking access and breaking things,'' she said in an interview with TF1 television late Wednesday. "It's serious for our country,'' she added.
Meanwhile, French senators worked their way through hundreds of amendments to the bill and a final vote could now be held anytime between Friday and Monday, Senate officials said.
The legislation is widely expected to be approved, as the key provisions have already been passed.
"In a few days the pension reform will become law", Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the National Assembly. "This reform is neither to the right nor to the left, it's a reform of common sense".
Rioters and protesters
Protests have largely been peaceful, except for sporadic episodes of violence in the southeastern city of Lyon and in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where clashes between youths and riot police broke out again on Wednesday.
Youths in both cities burned cars and threw bottles at police, who responded with tear gas, police said.
Nearly 1,500 alleged rioters have been arrested so far, 428 of them after flare-ups on Tuesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said, adding that police had deployed extra measures to boost security.
Hortefeux, on a visit to violence-hit Lyon on Wednesday, strongly condemned the violence and vowed to punish rioters.
The government is banking on the protests gradually fizzling out with the school holidays starting on Friday evening, but unions say they will not back down.