AFP - The titanic battle over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age reached a turning point Sunday at the start of a new week of strikes, rallies and fuel blockades.
With thousands of families heading off for school half-term holidays, and lawmakers preparing to give the pensions bill their formal final approval, Sarkozy hopes that the mass protest movement will start to die away.
But, with opinion polls showing the embattled president more unpopular than ever, trade unions and student bodies have declared at least two more days of action, and strikes continue in the key fuel sector.
A poll by the IFOP institute for the weekly JDD newspaper showed Sarkozy's approval rating had dropped below 30 percent for the first time, clouding his hopes that passing the pensions law could kick start a political comeback.
French university students are planning to march on Tuesday to defend the right to retire at 60, and trade unions have called their campaign's seventh one-day nationwide strike and day of rallies on Thursday.
Meanwhile, one petrol station in four around the country has run dry, amid strikes at refineries and blockades of fuel depots by strikers playing a cat and mouse game with riot police sent to disperse them.
Government supporters were putting a brave face on things, however, betting that on Wednesday -- when the National Assembly rubber stamps a pensions law already approved by both houses -- the movement will fizzle.
"In France we have a sort of ritual from another century," complained Jean-Francois Cope, leader of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP in parliament, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper.
"Strikes, protests, yes, but taking the economy hostage is intolerable," he said. "Most of the country paralysed by the actions of a handful of extremists. Everyone should understand that we have no other choice."
The pensions reform bill was approved by the Senate on Friday, and on Monday the text will be reconciled with the draft passed earlier by the lower house.
Government expects the merged text will then receive final approval by the National Assembly on Wednesday, raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018 and increasing the period of salary contributions to 41 years.
Sarkozy defends the measure as "inevitable" in the face of France's rapidly growing population and burgeoning budget deficit, but opponents accuse him of making workers pay while protecting the rich and the world of finance.
The president is due to face re-election in 2012, and the Socialist party has vowed that if its candidate wins, he or she will restore retirement at 60.
While most voters polled say they support the strikes, and each protest day has so far drawn more than a million marchers, Sarkozy is gambling that if he forces the law through he will be hailed as a strong leader by the right.
To this end, on Friday the government sent in riot police to clear access to a blocked fuel depot and served legal orders on some striking oil workers ordering them to return to work.
Strikes have continued across the industry, however, and around 70 ships are waiting at anchor off the southern port of Marseille unable to dock and unload. Nevertheless, officials predict a slow return to normal.
"In the Paris region we have 35 percent of filling stations that have run dry or are out of at least one fuel product, and in the west of the country a third are in real difficulty," said a spokeswoman for the transport ministry.
Elsewhere, between 10 and 15 percent of stations are out, she added.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Marseille -- where garbage has been piling up in the streets for two weeks -- authorities issued a legal order aimed at compelling striking rubbish collectors to re-open two dumps.