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French police unblock fuel depots

Police have cleared protestors blockading French fuel depots and fought with youths.

Under the protection of anti-riot police, fuel trucks leave the fuel storage depots blocked by strikers.
Under the protection of anti-riot police, fuel trucks leave the fuel storage depots blocked by strikers.

Police cleared protestors blockading French fuel depots and fought with youths today as the government warned of economic damage from prolonged strikes against its pensions reform.

A third of France's filling stations ran dry on yesterday, the government said, while cars were set alight and shops looted on the sidelines of protests that brought a million people into the street.

"If it is not stopped quickly, this disorder which is aimed at paralysing the country could have consequences for jobs by damaging the normal running of economic activity," the president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement today.

Workers in several key sectors have been on strike for a week to protest the pensions reform, which the government says is essential to reduce France's public deficit. Unions and political opponents say it penalises workers.

Mr Sarkozy said he had ordered police to break the blockades at all fuel depots blocked by protests, refusing to back down on the reform which the Senate is scheduled to vote on definitively tomorrow.

Three depots were peacefully reopened overnight on Mr Sarkozy's orders, the interior minister Brice Hortefeux said, but protestors have blockaded several more, police and reporters said.

"We will continue to unblock these depots as much as necessary," Mr Hortefeux said. "We will not let the country be blockaded and we will not let the thugs go unpunished," he added, referring to those arrested in street riots.

Disturbances broke out for a third day this morning in the eastern city of Lyon and the Paris suburb of Nanterre, the scenes of clashes between police and youths yesterday.

Youths burned a car and damaged buildings in Nanterre and in Lyon riot police dispersed groups of rioters and a van was set on fire, reporters said. Mr Hortefeux announced he would visit Lyon.

Ongoing disruption was forecast on the national railways with a third of TGV express trains cancelled, operator SNCF said.

At France's main air hub, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, unions announced blockades of access roads. Airport authorities said flights were normal this morning but warned of disruptions later in the day. A quarter of flights were cancelled at Paris's second biggest airport, Orly.

Mr Sarkozy's reform would raise the standard retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full benefits threshold from 65 to 67.

Unions have proposed alternative ways to cut the deficit but say the government has refused to negotiate with them. They are to meet tomorrow to decide their next action.

Business associations were anxious about the impact of drawn-out strikes.

"After three years of economic crisis, we do not have the means today to endure long strikes," the head of the CGPME small and medium business association Jean-Francois Roubaud said on Europe 1 radio yesterday.

Television news was dominated yesterday by scenes of clashes between riot police and youths in Lyon and suburbs of Paris, which Mr Hortefeux blamed on a rogue minority of "thugs" who joined ongoing protests by high school pupils.

The minister, who heads a crisis cell to deal with the disruption, said police had arrested 1,423 "rioters" over the past week. Hundreds of schools remained blockaded in the strike, the government and a schools union said.

CNIR traffic info service counted 15 roadblocks or go-slows this morning after truckers joined in the strike action this week. Rubbish piled up in the streets of Marseille because of a strike by collectors.

A poll by BVA published today said 59 per cent of the French supported a continuation of the strike even if the Senate passes the reform this week.

* Agencies