French police end refinery blockade as pension bill protests continue

11:36, 22 October 2010
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French police ended the blockade of an oil refinery near Paris early Friday morning as protests against government plans to raise the retirement age continued, according to CNN.

Members of the Gendarmerie Nationale instructed strikers to free the refinery at 3:15 a.m. (9:15 p.m. ET Thursday), a police spokesman said. The spokesman said they encountered no resistance, and strikers continue to protest in front of the refinery.

More than a million people have turned out nationwide to protest the proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a move the French government says is necessary to save money.

The country has faced fuel shortages because workers are on strike at all 12 of the nation`s refineries, and protesters are blocking 14 of the country`s 219 oil terminals.

A union leader told CNN affiliate BFM that the police action at the refinery Friday morning was "disgrace."

"Taking advantage to come in the middle of the night like that. What country are we in? What country are we? The country of human rights?" said Charles Foulard, a local union official for the General Confederation of Labor.

Officials countered that they were doing their jobs.

"When we intervene, we try to do it in the hours when it is the calmest, because our wish is that things go well. We are not here to provoke trouble ...We are here to execute a government decision through a legal process which is requisitioned," said Seine-et-Marne Prefect Jean-Michel Drevet.

The French Senate adopted new rules Thursday to speed up voting on the controversial pension reform bill. They now could pass their version as soon as Friday, meaning a final version could be sent to the president by early next week.

Six major French unions have called for nationwide demonstrations on October 28 and November 6, saying that protests so far show the people are ready to dig in for the long haul.

Thousands of people demonstrated in central Paris on Thursday while the senators were voting.

The march was largely peaceful, although there were confrontations between students, riot police and undercover officers in the crowd. Protesters marched through the city, blocking intersections as they headed for Place Denfert-Rochereau, a central Paris square that has seen many demonstrations over the years.

Some 200 demonstrators blocked France`s Marseille Provence Airport for more than three hours on Thursday.

France has been reeling from the strikes. Police and protesters clashed Wednesday, and on Tuesday, 428 people were arrested in connection with the demonstrations.

About 1.1 million people demonstrated across the country on Tuesday, French media quoted police as saying. Unions put the figure at 3.5 million nationwide that day.

Despite the protests, the lower house of parliament has already passed the pension reform bill, by a vote of 329 to 233.

If there are substantial differences between the Senate and National Assembly versions, a conference committee will have to iron them out before the final version goes to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

That could happen as soon as Monday or Tuesday, lawmakers said -- before the next planned protests.

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