Strikes hurt travel for France's school holidays

JENNY BARCHFIELD - Associated Press Writer

Families hoping to get away for France's school holidays faced train delays and gas shortages Saturday as strikes against the government's pension reform stretched into a twelfth straight day.

French workers and students livid about the plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 have wrecked havoc in recent weeks — from shutting down hundreds of high schools to blocking airports and oil refineries nationwide.

The government has been counting on the nearly two-week-long Toussaint fall holiday to deflate the protests, but drivers trying to get away Saturday had to line up in large queues at gas stations first.

Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo insisted the gasoline shortages had eased but admitted it could take a while to get back to normal. At one point, up to one-third of France's gas stations were shut down by shortages.

"In the past four days, we have seen an improvement day after day ... there is a slow but real improvement," Borloo told a press conference Saturday.

Only seven of the country's 100 departments (regions) were still affected by the shortages, he added, mostly in the west and around Paris, where 30 percent of gas station remain closed.

At the Gargenville Total refinery depot, supporters of workers who have been striking for 10 days gathered for a picnic in the rain outside the company's facilities. A sign — "On strike" — hung on a closed gate.

In the past few days, government has sent riot police to reopen refineries blocked by striking workers to get gas flowing again, but dozens of tankers are still stuck waiting to unload off ports like Marseille.

Service on the Eurostar and most TGV fast trains was normal Saturday but regular trains linking provincial cities and commuter lines in Paris were still crippled, with service cut in half on some lines.

Union leaders — who insist the reform hacks away at French workers' hard-earned rights — have scheduled more nationwide strikes and demonstrations for Tuesday and Nov. 6.

In tense balloting Friday, the Senate voted 177-153 for the pension reform bill, which is expected to win final formal approval next week by both houses of parliament.

Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy insists he has no choice but to overhaul the money-losing pension system and says raising retirement age is vital to ensuring that future generations receive any pension at all.

With government debt soaring and life expectancies stretching across Europe, many other countries are faced with similar hard choices.