REUTERS - The French government struggled to restore fuel supplies on Saturday, but unions dug in their heels at strike-hit oil refineries after the Senate approved the pension reform bill at the heart of the dispute.
Despite weeks of protests and strikes that have hit railways and refineries hardest, the flagship reform of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s term is expected to be finally adopted by Wednesday.
On the first day of a 12-day mid-term school holiday, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau assured motorists highway service stations were well stocked but acknowledged shortages elsewhere and urged motorists not to overdo tank refills.
“More and more stations will be getting supplies,” he said on Europe 1 radio.
The state railway company SNCF, where rolling strikes have reduced services by as much as 50 percent, announced improved frequency on high-speed links - eight in 10 trains running - for the holiday rush but said many other services would be between 50 and 60 percent of normal levels.
Sarkozy and his centre-right government have refused to back down on a bill seeking to plug a hole in pension funding by raising the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 and raising the age at which people qualify for a full pension to 67 from 65.
The bill was rushed past a first hurdle in the National Assembly last month and cleared a second on Friday when the government used a special procedure to speed the vote in the Senate.
Final adoption is due next week, when the bill will be put to a panel representing both houses of parliament before a final vote the government expects by Wednesday.
The law has been one of the most fiercely contested reforms among austerity measures being taken by European governments as the continent emerges deeply indebted from the worst recession since World War Two.
Unions have signalled their determination to keep fighting the bill despite the fact it now looks certain to make it on to the statute book. All France’s main unions have called for two more days of protests on Oct. 28 and Nov. 6.
Strikes continued at France’s 12 oil refineries, a spokesman for the CGT trade union said, and also at the Fos-Lavera oil terminal near the Mediterranean port of Marseille, leaving some 50 tankers unable to dock.
At the refineries, the unions scored a legal victory late on Friday when a court struck down a back-to-work order at the Grandpuits refinery east of Paris issued by the prefect, on the grounds that it did not respect the right to strike.
Police charged picket lines on Friday to end a blockade at Grandpuits.
North of Paris, the Picardie region’s soccer league cancelled its weekend matches.
“Because of fuel supply and distribution problems, the Picardie football league has decided to postpone all official regional matches scheduled this weekend,” the Picardie league said in a statement on its website.
Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said on Friday about one in five petrol stations was short of or out of fuel, down from nearer 30 percent earlier in the week, but transport minister Bussereau conceded on Saturday that the number of empty fuel stations was 35 percent in parts of eastern and western France.
Unions said street marches this week, the sixth day of protests and strikes since June, attracted about 3.5 million people, while the government put the number at just over one million.
Political analysts say the government may be hoping that the school holiday will reduce student participation in the upcoming protests and, with that, reduce the risk of a repetition of the sporadic violence this week in the city of Lyon and Nanterre, west of Paris.