WRAPUP 2-Strikes wane at French fuel plants, shortages persist

* Three refineries return to work, fuel depots all clear

* Strikes have cost 200-400 mln euros per day – Lagarde

* Unions plan fresh nationwide protest on Thursday

(Recasts with detail on refineries, fuel, Marseille quote)

By Mathilde Cru and Catherine Bremer

PARIS, Oct 25 (BestGrowthStock) – Workers at a quarter of France’s
strike-hit oil refineries returned to work on Monday, taking
some of the steam out of a long protest over pension reform, but
stalled plants meant fuel shortages persisted.

A surge of families leaving town at the weekend for
half-term school holidays put extra pressure on petrol pumps,
and Economy Minister Christine Lagarde warned the walkouts were
costing France 200-400 million euros a day in lost production.

Strikes are over at three of France’s 12 refineries and fuel
is leaving depots at four of them. Eight refineries are still
blockaded, union officials said, as workers keep up protests
over a planned two-year increase in France’s retirement age.

“We are up against someone who despises us. Do we really
want to carry on until we break?” asked one worker at the
Ineos-Lavera refinery, near the southern port of Marseille. “I
don’t think it’s worth it.”

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For all stories on the French protests: [ID:nLDE69H1EP]

Graphic on fuel shortages: http://link.reuters.com/hut69p

Map of European strikes: http://r.reuters.com/war95p

European retirement ages: http://link.reuters.com/dez28p

Euro zone “misery index”: http://r.reuters.com/wew88p

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President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension bill, which he says is
necessary to rein in a growing pension shortfall and reassure
markets France can control its deficit, was approved by the
Senate on Friday and should be signed into law later this week.

Sarkozy looks to be winning an arm wrestle with trade unions
behind a long series of strikes and street marches since the
summer over the reform, opposed by two-thirds of French people.

But unions have planned two more national days of protest,
including strikes and marches, and images of burning barricades
at fuel depots and street riots have embarrassed the government.

Lagarde told Europe 1 radio the protests were hurting
France. “We came out of the crisis in fairly good shape and we
should not be slowing the rebound with action that is bad for
the French economy and very bad for small businesses,” she said.

“RATS LIKE CATS”

Two-week refinery strikes have forced the government to dip
into strategic fuel reserves and increase imports.
[ID:nLDE69O28W]

Dock worker strikes at oil-importing ports at Marseille,
which supplies half the country’s refineries, and Le Havre,
which serves the north, have exacerbated the shortages.

The port strikes meant that refining remained at a virtual
standstill, even where workers were back at work on Monday.

Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said things were “getting
better” and that the government aimed to have 80 percent of the
country’s service stations working normally on Tuesday.

The southeastern city of Lyon was hard hit, with two-thirds
of petrol stations dry or suffering shortages. Fuel was being
brought in by pipeline or tanker and petrol station managers who
profited from the situation by hiking prices were being fined.

“The situation got worse over the weekend,” local government
prefect Jacques Gerault told a news conference.

Strikes eased in other sectors, with regional train and
Eurostar services near normal after two weeks’ of disruption.

There was no let-up in Marseille, however, where strikes by
port workers and garbage collectors have left trash piled in the
streets and more than 50 oil tankers idle in the Mediterranean.

“There are piles of rubbish 1 metre 80 high. The rats are as
big as cats. I’ve got two cats and I can tell you it’s not the
cats that rule in this city at the moment,” a passerby told
Reuters Television in downtown Marseille.

City Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin told councillors it was
imperative the rubbish collectors started working again.

Sarkozy, whose ratings are at all time lows just 18 months
before a presidential election, has sent police to break up fuel
depot blockades. On Monday, oil lobby UFIP said all fuel depot
blockades had been lifted. [ID:nWEA4160]

A parliamentary committee agreed on a revised text on Monday
for the pension bill, including amendments made by the Senate,
which the upper and lower houses now need to approve.

Unions have called two more days of protest on Oct. 28 and
Nov. 6. Separately, students will go on marches on Tuesday.

Small businesses still fragile from the recession have fared
worst during the strikes. France’s top industrial group MEDEF
has asked for a moratorium on social charges for hard-hit firms.

One small business association estimated 4 billion euros has
been lost in the strikes but economists are divided on the cost.

Barclays economist Laurence Boone said Lagarde’s estimate
seemed on the high side and said the refinery blockades were not
likely to significantly reduce quarterly growth.

Marc Touati, an economist at Global Equities, said the
government estimate seemed reasonable. “We had a small recovery
going but this could reverse it,” he said. “There is also the
problem of international credibility which can be very painful.”
(Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur, Gus Trompiz, Leigh
Thomas, Vicky Buffery, Daniel Flynn, Marina Depetris in
Marseille and Catherine Lagrange in Lyon)

WRAPUP 2-Strikes wane at French fuel plants, shortages persist