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Fuel imports into France surge as protests imperil transportation

By the CNN Wire Staff
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French fuel pumps running dry
  • NEW: A French oil industry group says that 10 of the nation's 200 fuel terminals are blocked by strikers
  • NEW: Imports of oil from refineries outside France have increased, in response to the transportation crisis
  • The strike has lasted a week, as workers protest government plans to raise the retirement age
  • The government has shdown no sign of backing down, saying France can't afford the current system

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Paris, France (CNN) -- Fuel continues to flow into France -- increasingly, from refineries out of the country -- as the nation deals with the ongoing effects of strikes that have affected car, train and plane travel throughout the European nation.

Jean-Louis Shilansky, the president of the French Union of Petroleum Industries, said 10 of France's 200 fuel terminals were blocked Monday by protesters opposed to a government cost-saving move that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. French unions had said that production has stopped at 12 of the nation's refineries.

Shilansky said there is a four-week supply of fuel in France, and any shortages can be resolved with shipments from other countries. In recent days, for instance, fuel imports "have increased substantially" from Russia, Italy, Spain and Germany, he said.

"The trouble is really logistics," Shilansky told CNN, and getting fuel to terminals.

About 1,000 gas stations across France have run out of fuel because strikers had blocked access to oil refineries and depots, Alexandre de Benoist, a Union of Independent Oil Importers official, told CNN on Monday.

The work stoppages at refineries has had a direct effect on the two main Paris airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle. Half the flights from Orly airport will be canceled Tuesday because of the strikes, and 30 percent of flights from other airports in the city will be canceled, the French aviation authority announced Monday.

Both airports are supplied by a pipeline that comes directly from refineries that were shut down Friday, according to Trapil, the company that owns the line.

But Shilansky said that French airports are not in imminent danger of running out of fuel. If necessary, he said, France always can import more jet fuel.

French workers began their latest round of strikes a week ago, protesting against government plans to raise the retirement age and institute other pension reforms. The government, which contends that France can no longer afford the earlier retirement payments, has shown no sign of backing down. Analysts say pension reform will likely be a defining moment in the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Blasting Sarkozy during a CNN interview Saturday, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe accused the French president of "arrogance." But Sarkozy insists the changes are needed because rising life expectancy increases the financial burden on the pension system.

A government crisis coordination task force met for the first time Monday to discuss the fuel situation, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior said. The group, to be led by Interior Minister Brice Hortefeaux, will aim to "coordinate the action of different state departments to ensure a continuous fuel supply."

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Sunday night he would "not let the French economy be choked by a blockade of fuel.

"There will not be a shortage because we are going to make the necessary decisions ... to ensure that this country is not blocked," he said on TF1 television.

Despite repeated national strikes over the controversial proposal, France's National Assembly last Wednesday approved Sarkozy's pension reform bill, which would raise the national retirement age.

The proposal passed 329 to 233, but still must pass the Senate to become law.

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday.

Workers from both the public and private sectors are on strike, including those in transportation, education, justice, hospitals, media and banking. Students demonstrated in sympathy with the strikers Monday, with 261 high schools in "a state of disruption," the Ministry of Education said. More demonstrations are scheduled for Tuesday.

Belgium was also hit by strikes Monday, forcing the cancellation of high-speed Eurostar trains to the capital, Brussels, from Paris and London, England. A very limited bus service was scheduled to operate between Brussels and Lille, France, Eurostar said.

On Saturday, protesters in France formed a line stretching two miles near the historic Bastille Square in Paris, waving banners and shouting insults against Sarkozy's government, CNN's Jim Bittermann reported.

France's Interior Ministry said some 825,000 protesters turned out nationwide, while labor unions said 3.5 million protesters attended the more than 200 demonstrations across the country Saturday.

CNN's Winnie Andrews and Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report