French step up strikes in pensions row

 
City A.M. Reporter
FRENCH truck drivers vowed to block key roads from last night and rail unions announced new strikes from today, putting fresh pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy over his unpopular pension reform.

New action by truckers and rail workers, continuing strikes by refinery workers and the threat of more street marches in the drive to force Sarkozy to scrap the reform before a crucial Senate vote, make this a make-or-break week for him.

Sarkozy has vowed not to give in throughout months of opposition to his plan to raise the retirement age and rein in a ballooning pension deficit. The powerful unions, which have a history of crushing reform, have vowed to match his resolve.

“If we do nothing... the system will explode,” interior minister Brice Hortefeux told LCI television, as the government kept up its appeal to a public that feels it is being unfairly punished for failures in the social security system.

Petrol pumps are drying up, truckers said they would block key roads from last night, and after a day of disrupted trains, rail unions agreed new strikes today that could halt two-thirds of regular trains and half the express TGV services.

A fresh nationwide march against the pension reform – which would raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively – was set for tomorrow, testing Sarkozy’s determination to stand by a key policy.

“The right to strike is not the right to prevent access to a fuel depot. This is an illegal action,” said Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

The UFIP oil industry lobby warned that strikes running at all France’s 12 refineries could cause serious fuel supply problems by mid-week, and the government may have to tap emergency reserves.