French petrol stations run dry as protests intensify
Youths throw Molotov cocktails at riot police outside school
FRANCE was convulsed by a gathering sense of crisis yesterday as riot police fired tear gas, students threw petrol bombs and the transport system was hit by fuel shortages and blockades.
Despite claims that it had petrol provision "under control", the government said it had activated an emergency crisis cell charged with maintaining fuel supplies.
The opposition Socialists criticised Francois Fillon, the prime minister, for failing to speak to the unions over proposed pension reforms, which would raise minimum and full retirement ages to 62 and 67.
"We have a prime minister who thinks he is Churchill but who is only Thatcher," said Harlem Desir, the Socialists' deputy leader. "He is trying to make us think he is carrying out great reforms to save our economy, but in fact he is smashing our social model."
The Socialists, like the unions, want to allow the French to continue to retire at 60 despite rising life expectancy, saying the shortfall could be filled by increasing tax on capital and the number of years a person paid into the system.
Mr Fillon said his government has already made concessions but would not back down on the two most contentious changes.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that the reform would pass despite the strikes.
All 12 of France's oil refineries remained closed because of strike action and many fuel depots were blocked by pickets. About 1,500 petrol stations on the forecourts of French supermarkets ran out of fuel, according to their industry association.
The UFIP oil industry lobby has warned that France may see serious fuel-supply problems by midweek, obliging the government to look at tapping some of the country's emergency reserves.
A spokesman for Exxon Mobil described the situation as "critical", while Leclerc, one of France's biggest supermarket chains, said the filling stations on its forecourts would "all run dry by the end of the week".
Youth protests turned violent in Paris and a string of major cities yesterday. Molotov cocktails flew outside a school in the Paris suburb of Combes-la-Ville, and police said they were even briefly threatened with an angry rifle-toting protester.
Police also used tear gas to quell protests in the eastern towns of Mulhouse and Montbeliard and clashed with youths in Lyon who smashed a bus shelter, looted a fast-food cafe and burned several cars. Students briefly blocked traffic at Paris town hall and police hemmed in a group of 400 protesters on the Champs-Elysees.
Lorry drivers increased pressure on the government to revoke its bill, which the senate is due to approve tomorrow, by staging "snail operations" on motorways.
The street demonstrations came ahead of mass strikes and nationwide rallies planned for today -- the sixth in a little over a month. Half of flights to and from Paris Orly airport and a third of flights at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and elsewhere in France will be cancelled as strikers plan to rally at airports.
About half of France's high-speed TGV trains were in operation yesterday. Traffic on the Eurostar between Paris and London was normal although Eurostar services between London and Brussels were hit by a 24-hour strike by Belgian rail workers. (© Daily Telegraph, London