PARIS (Reuters) - French unions on Thursday called a nationwide strike for October 19, hoping to galvanise the country into a drawn-out confrontation with the government over a proposed rise in the retirement age.
With some French people already fearing a national protest similar to one which paralysed the country in 1995, motorists have begun panic-buying of fuel after industrial action closed refineries and halted trains.
Tens of thousands, many of them students, took to the streets on Thursday for a third straight day to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms.
“Sarko, you’re screwed, youths are in the street,” secondary school students chanted as they marched through Paris.
Sarkozy’s government has weathered five waves of strike action since June, but analysts say the pensions dispute may be nearing a crossroads as unions seek broader social support.
“The fact that your people are joining in shows they worry not just for pensions but for jobs and their own futures,” nationwide unions said in a statement.
Students fear the reforms the government says are needed rescue a system losing billions of euros a year will end up worsening youth unemployment.
One student was injured when he was hit by a rubber flash-ball fired by police in the Paris suburbs, and another was taken to hospital in Bordeaux after clashes. In scuffles elsewhere, students in Lille burnt a car and rubbish containers.
“Young people are fighting for their future, and this is not the reform they want,” Victor Grezes, a representative of secondary school students’ union UNL, told Reuters TV.
The biggest youth demonstrations were in Paris and in the southern city of Toulouse.
With the protests affecting output from all but one of France’s 12 refineries, a few dozen petrol stations ran out of supplies due to panic buying.
The FNTR haulage association said the government had authorised the use of some of its commercial stocks available to ensure trucking firms were not hit.
The government said it was not tapping strategic reserves, however, and called on motorists to avoid panic buying after demand at the pumps surged by 50 percent in the past two days.
“There will be no shortages of fuel at the pumps,” Transport Secretary Dominique Bussereau told LCI television. “We have what it takes for at least a month without any problems.”
“I say to motorists, do not go and stock up on fuel, you will not need it,” Bussereau said.
Union leaders called next week’s strike amid signs support for the strike at the state railways may be flagging.
The SNCF rail company said only 20 percent of its workers stayed away from work on Thursday, down from 25 percent on Wednesday and 40 percent on Tuesday. Almost all international trains and roughly half domestic ones were running normally.
With elections looming in early 2012, Sarkozy has stood firm on the flagship legislation, expected to be approved by the Senate within days, despite a 24-hour national protest on Tuesday which unions said brought 3.5 million onto the streets.
Unions have already called for nationwide street marches on Saturday.
The government, which says 1.23 million marchers took to the streets on Tuesday, insists it will see through a reform needed to clean up its finances and retain France’s AAA credit rating.
However, a poll released on Thursday showed two-thirds of French people believe the sectoral stoppages could grow into a broad national protest movement that could paralyse the country as in 1995, when a 24-day strike crushed a pension overhaul.
The Internet survey of 1,016 people said some 54 percent of those questioned favoured such a movement.
Refinery workers who walked off the job during Tuesday’s national strike continued to block fuel deliveries from nine of France’s 12 refineries and production slowed from seven.
Workers were on strike at several liquefied natural gas docks, disrupting supply, including at the Atlantic port of Montoir where they plan to block the arrival of an LNG tanker.
With France’s top oil port of Fos-Lavera, near Marseille, shut by demonstrators for an 18th day, the UFIP oil industry lobby has warned that localised fuel shortages could hit parts of France from the middle of next week.
France’s chemical industry association said the port blockage had cost 550 million euros (483 million pounds) in losses.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon, Mathilde Cru and Patrick Vignal)
Editing by Myra MacDonald