REUTERS - President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in police to clear access to barricaded French fuel depots and restore supply as trade unions kept up their resistance on Wednesday to a pension reform due for a final vote this week.
Fuel imports hit a record high on Tuesday, the government said, as it tried to get round a 24-day blockade of France's largest oil port, near Marseille, where 51 oil tankers lay idle in the Mediterranean, unable to dock.
More than 3,000 service stations out of nearly 12,500 in France were out of fuel on Wednesday, the government said.
Sarkozy said the government would not let the country be paralysed by protests against a pension reform that seeks to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.
"If this disorder is not ended quickly, the attempt to paralyse the country could have consequences for jobs by disrupting the normal functioning of the economy," he told a cabinet meeting in remarks released by his office. Sarkozy vowed again to push through his pension reform.
A nine-day transport strike in 2007 cost France about 400 million euros a day, according to the economy ministry, although analysts do not see the current strikes costing as much.
With a Senate vote on the pension reform expected by the end of the week, unions tried to tighten 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.
The wave of protests -- which drew at least one million people on Tuesday 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.
Backed by a majority of voters, unions are trying to force Sarkozy -- whose ratings are near record lows 18 months before a presidential election -- to retreat on what is seen as the defining reform of his presidency.
The centre-right government has stood firm through a wave of protests and strikes since the summer but the most serious test of its resolve came last week when union strikes began to target fuel supplies, transport and air travel.
Police have cleared access to 21 oil depots since Friday, although a barricade reformed at Donges, western France, on Wednesday.
Strikes halted operations at two of France's three liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. Public utility EDF told Reuters there was no immediate risk of LNG shortages.
"We're ready to continue striking every day and go all the way," a CGT union representative near Marseille told Reuters.
Yields on French 10-year bonds have risen since the protests began in the summer to stand 39 basis points above German benchmark debt. This is up from around 26 basis points in May as investors worried about euro zone budget deficits and the French demonstrations demand a risk premium for holding France's debt.
"We have to go on"
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 projectiles 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 including helicopters to boost security.
The Senate is working its way through hundreds of amendments to the bill and a final vote could come late on Friday, at the weekend or be put off until Monday, Senate officials said. The legislation is widely expected to be approved as the key provisions have already 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."
The government is betting that protests will gradually fizzle out as 10 days of school holidays start on Friday evening, but unions say they will not back down.
"You cannot say, 'now that it's been adopted we simply swallow the law and everyone goes home'. I think we have to go on," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union.
Disruptions on the SNCF rail network eased with two out of three high-speed TGV trains running and regional services at around half-capacity, but fuel shortages were a major headache.
The government is tapping strategic fuel reserves and says supply should be normal by the weekend, before the holidays.
Elsewhere in the energy sector, striking liquefied natural gas workers blocked the unloading of an LNG tanker at the Atlantic terminal of Montoir.