- Associated Press - Friday, October 22, 2010

PARIS (AP) — The French Senate, pushed into an early vote, approved on Friday a hotly contested bill raising the retirement age to 62, hours after riot police forced the reopening of a strategic refinery to help halt growing fuel shortages amid nationwide strikes and protests.

In tense balloting after 140 hours of debate, the Senate voted 177-153 for the pension reform. The measure is expected to win final formal approval by both houses of parliament next week.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government, keen to get the measure passed and quell increasingly radicalized protests, cut short the debate and voting process using a special procedure. Critics on the left dubbed the use of Article 44-3 of the Constitution a denial of democracy.

The tough stance by the government extended to strikes as French riot police forced a strategic refinery to reopen Friday, aiming to halt growing fuel shortages that have emptied gas pumps around the country and risked hurting industry.

The refinery at Grandpuits had been a bastion of resistance to Mr. Sarkozy’s bid to raise the retirement age to 62. Despite the government’s efforts to conquer union resistance, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it will take several more days to end gasoline shortages that are taking a toll on France’s economy.

The Senate debate lasted three weeks before it was short-circuited. Legislators — mostly opposition Socialists — submitted a staggering 1,237 amendments, but Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party and its allies have a majority and dismissed nearly all of them.

The text now goes to a committee of seven senators and lower house lawmakers Monday who will try to reach agreement on differences before returning the bill to both houses for a final vote sometime next week.

Unions oppose a pillar of the reform — raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 — and have staged months of strikes and protests that have boiled over into radical action and scattered clashes.

Mr. Sarkozy had ordered regional authorities to intervene and force open depots, accusing the strikers of holding ordinary people and the French economy “hostage.”

The Interior Ministry said the operation at the Grandpuits fuel refinery succeeded “without incident,” but the CGT union claimed three workers were injured. Emergency workers brought stretchers to the depot, located 50 miles east of Paris, the closest source of gasoline supplies to the French capital.

Helmeted officers in body armor descended overnight on Grandpuits, confronting workers who shoved back and shouted union slogans as they sought to keep police from opening the gates to the depot, which is run by oil giant Total SA.

“We are outraged, scandalized,” said Charles Foulard, a union leader at the Grandpuits depot.

Workers have been camped in front of the site for 10 days, blocking access and contributing to widespread fuel shortages. As of Friday, about 20 percent of France’s service stations were still empty, down from 40 percent a few days ago.

Mr. Sarkozy says overhauling the money-losing pension system is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pensions at all. It’s a choice many European governments are facing as populations live longer and government debts soar.

But French unions say retirement at 60 is a hard-earned right, and claim the working class will be unfairly punished by the pension reform. They also fear this is just the first step in dismantling an entire network of benefits that make France an enviable place to work and live.

Police also broke a picket line early Friday at a fuel depot in Grand Quevilly in western France. Police forced it open earlier this week, but defiant protesters had blocked it again Thursday.

Mr. Fillon convened oil industry executives Friday to look at the country’s lagging fuel supplies, and said it will take “several more days” for a return to normal.

The head of the national petroleum industry body, Jean-Louis Schilansky, says it is struggling to import fuel to make up for the shortfall, because strikers are also blockading two key oil terminals, in Le Havre and Marseille. Dozens of tankers remained anchored in the waters off Marseille, unable to unload.

“The problem isn’t so much finding the oil, it is getting it in to the country,” he told journalists. “If the depots and refineries remain blocked, we will not make it.”

Mr. Schilansky insisted, however, that France has weeks or months of fuel reserves. The government has ordered oil companies to pool fuel to make sure gas stations are stocked, particularly this weekend as nationwide school vacations begin.

Paris taxi driver Jerome Nourry resorted to getting gas in neighboring Belgium.

“We have to be inventive. I drove a customer to Belgium yesterday, so I took advantage to put some gas in a container,” he said in Paris on Friday. “We do what we can, in order to be able to work.”

The gas shortages and other disruptions have hit many sectors of the economy, and Global Equities’ head economist Marc Touati said it could wipe out between 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points of economic growth.

The government predicts economic growth of 2 percent next year, after 1.5 percent in 2010.

Unions blame the government for letting tensions build so high, and announced two more days of protest nationwide, next week and the week after.

Violence around student protests have added a new dimension to the volatile mix.

Police vans and water cannon trucks stood ready Friday in Lyon, where city workers cleaned up scattered glass from rampages the day before. Police used tear gas and water cannon against youths hurling bottles and overturning cars.

“It is not troublemakers who will have the last word in a democracy,” Mr. Sarkozy told officials in central France, promising to find and punish rioters.

The protests even forced Lady Gaga to cancel her Paris pop concerts.

Duclos reported from Grandpuits. AP writers Elaine Ganley and Greg Keller and AP Television News reporters Jonathan Shenfield in Lyon and Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.

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