France sought to calm fears of petrol shortages, with the oil industry admitting it cannot hold on forever as strikes against pension reform intensified ahead of another wave of mass protests.


Officials tried to head off panic buying of petrol amid the rolling strikes and protests that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets for the latest day of action against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s key reform on Saturday.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed to take any “necessary decisions” to ensure the country’s fuel supplies flowed.

“I will not let the French economy be choked by a blockade of fuel supplies,” Fillon told TF1 television channel.

“The right to strike is respected, but this is not the right to block access to fuel, or to deny non-striking workers access to their workplaces,” said Fillon.

Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau told Europe 1 radio that with 10 out of France’s 12 oil refineries shut down by strike action, panic buying had led to a 50 per cent jump in petrol sales last week and hundreds of stations running dry.

French Oil Industry Association (UFIP) head Jean-Louis Schilansky said service stations were now being replenished after the government authorised the use of extra-large 44-tonne trucks, usually banned for environmental reasons.

The government has given oil companies permission to tap into their own emergency stocks ahead of Tuesday’s mass protest day, the sixth in as many weeks.

But Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said the government would be prepared to tap government-controlled strategic reserves if the situation deteriorated.

Unions slammed the management’s reopening of a crucial pipeline bringing fuel to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, which officials warned could have run empty as early as Monday, saying untested fuel was flowing to planes.

France’s many road transport workers were expected to enter the strike from Monday, possibly to be joined by armoured van drivers, which would hit money deliveries to cash machines.

Unions have said their protests may not end even after the pension reform law raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 is passed by the Senate this week, and planes have been told to refuel abroad before returning to France.

Former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius meanwhile denied government statements that the protests were waning, telling Radio RCJ that Tuesday “will be the most important day”.

He also said he expected the government to take action against petrol companies that were raising their prices amid the shortages, what he called an “absolutely scandalous practice”.