French Police Break Refinery Blockade

October 22, 2010

PARIS —Security forces scuffled with strikers on Friday morning to break a blockade of a major refinery near Paris and the government moved to accelerate a Senate vote on pension reforms that have sparked weeks of strikes and demonstrations.

The Grandpuits refinery was one of 12 where strikers had halted operations since early last week, leaving drivers short of gasoline. Refineries, fuel depots and ports have been blocked and intermittent clashes have broken out between demonstrators and the police. In Lyon, an epicenter of violent protest, riot police stood by on Friday in case of further disturbances, witnesses said.

“What happened today is totally unacceptable,” Charles Foulard, a labor union official, told reporters at the Grandpuits refinery about 35 miles east of Paris. Labor unions said three strikers had been slightly injured as the police moved in. The police operation was designed to secure access to fuel stocks to ease critical shortages, the authorities said.

About a fifth of the 13,000 French service stations are still out of fuel, down from 40 percent affected earlier this week, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said on Friday.

After a meeting later with oil industry executives, Prime Minister François Fillon said that shortages would probably continue for several days.

With a national school vacation beginning Friday afternoon, the national railroad authority said it was restoring high speed services that had been cut by half earlier in the week.

The police action at the Grandpuits refinery, which supplies much of the Paris area, followed moves late Thursday by President Nicolas Sarkozy to employ an article in the Constitution that will allow the government to prevent individual votes on the remaining 230 or so amendments to the pension reform bill.

There have been about 1,000 amendments, most of them an effort by the Socialists and other opposition parties to slow down the passage of the bill while the strikes continue. Under the streamlined procedure, an early vote on the bill could come on Friday and final approval is expected by the middle of next week.

The bill calls for gradual increases in the age for a minimum pension to 62 from 60 and for a full pension to 67 from 65. It provides some exceptions for workers in dangerous occupations, for those who began work at an early age and for mothers who take breaks to raise their children.

The rule will force the Senate to cast a single vote on the bill in a text drafted by the government, accepting only the amendments the government chooses. Debate can continue on the remaining amendments, but senators will not be able to vote on each one.

The unions also called for new days of national protest next Thursday and on Nov. 6.

The Socialists’ leader, Martine Aubry, criticized the government’s move in Parliament as an abuse of power imposing “an unjust reform” without sufficient debate by elected representatives.

“With Mr. Sarkozy, it’s the permanent ‘coup de force,’ “ she said, echoing an anti-De Gaulle pamphlet in 1964 by François Mitterrand called “Le coup d’état permanent.”

But Labor Minister Éric Woerth said that with the debate in its third week, “It’s time for the Senate to act.” Asked about Ms. Aubry’s charge, he said: “You say it’s a coup de force,” but added: “It’s only the application of the Constitution.”

Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Sarkozy warned that “troublemakers” using violence in the protests against his proposed pension changes would be pursued and punished “with no weakness” on the part of the authorities. He spoke at a meeting with rural officials southwest of Paris as a 10th straight day of strikes at refineries and blockades of fuel depots and ports left motorists struggling to find fuel.

Referring to several days of clashes between the police and protesters in Lyon, which continued on Thursday, Mr. Sarkozy said the “troublemakers will not have the last word in a democracy, a republic.”

“It is not acceptable,” he said. “They will be stopped, tracked down and punished, in Lyon and anywhere else, with no weakness. Because in our democracy, there are many ways to express yourself. But violence is the most cowardly, the most gratuitous, and that is not acceptable.”

Mr. Sarkozy has tried to switch the topic from pensions to law and order. But he is also counting on a coming school vacation week to take some of the steam out of the protests, which have been joined by thousands of high school students.

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