UPDATE 1-French unions extend rail strike, block refineries

* Unions extend rail strike but participation falls

* Refinery blockades raise spectre of fuel shortages

* Govt stands firm, senate due to approve reform soon

(Adds union leader’s comments, details)

By Gerard Bon and Daniel Flynn

PARIS, Oct 13 (BestGrowthStock) – French unions extended a rail
strike into a second day and blockaded oil refineries in protest
at pension reforms on Wednesday, but there were signs the
stoppages could be losing steam as broad participation wavered.

With the bill due to be approved within days by the Senate,
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government stood firm
on its flagship reform, despite a national strike on Tuesday
which brought more than a million marchers onto the streets.

Union leaders said local meetings throughout France on
Wednesday voted almost unanimously in favour of extending the
stoppage in the state railway sector, the bedrock of the
protests. But they acknowledged turnout had fallen.

Strong support for an extended strike would turn the screw
on Sarkozy, whose government would be left in tatters by a
climb-down on the reform ahead of elections in early 2012.

“The stoppage has been extended until at least Thursday,
which will be a decisive day for its continuation,” said Bruno
Duchemin, secretary-general of the Fgaac-CFDT railworkers union.

Union leaders were due to meet late on Wednesday to discuss
whether to seek to extend the strike further in light of the
fall in the number of strikers.

France’s state-run SNCF railways said only around one
quarter of its workers walked off the job on Wednesday, down
from 40 percent on Tuesday, with two-thirds of high-speed trains
and over half of regional trains running normally.

Just 135 schools were affected on Wednesday, versus 357 on
Tuesday, the education ministry said.

In the energy sector, workers halted the transport of fuel
from eight of France’s 12 refineries and blockaded a handful of
the country’s 160 fuel depots, raising the spectre of petrol
shortages. Some people in southern France began to hoard fuel.

With unions at five refineries, including four operated by
Total (TOTF.PA: ), starting to shut down production and France’s
biggest oil port at Marseilles hit by a two-week-old strike, oil
sector lobby UFIP has said localised fuel shortages could hit
petrol stations by the middle of next week. [ID:nLDE69C1HU]

GOVERNMENT TO PRESS AHEAD

The government, which says 1.23 million marchers took to the
streets on Tuesday versus union estimates of 3.5 million, said
it would press ahead with a reform its says is needed to restore
state finances to health and retain France’s AAA credit rating.

“I’m not denying there were a lot of people in the streets
but at the same time what can we do? Not reform the pension
system?” Labour Minister Eric Woerth told RTL radio, saying only
minor amendments were possible before Senate approval.

Sarkozy’s government says the reform is essential to balance
a pension system which would otherwise bleed 45 billion euros a
year by 2020. The legislation raises the minimum retirement age
to 62 from 60, and lifts it to 67 from 65 for a full pension.

Opposition and government senators said they hoped to end
discussion of the bill soon, possibly before the weekend.

Unions, which overturned a 1995 attempt to reform the system
with 24 days of strikes, said protests would continue regardless
of whether the bill passed the government-controlled Senate.

Analysts said the main risk to Sarkozy was if protests
spread to university students and those angry at his broader
agenda. In an attempt to defuse tension, his UMP party said on
Tuesday it would review an unpopular tax ceiling for the rich.

“There is an increasing probability the government will seek
deeper negotiations over the proposed reforms to counter the
increasing protests,” said Barclays analyst Laurence Boone,
saying it might let some groups retire on full pension at 65.
(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery, Thierry Leveque,
Mathilde Cru, Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou and Emile Picy;
Editing by Peter Graff)

UPDATE 1-French unions extend rail strike, block refineries