PARIS — The confrontation over pension reform in France deepened Monday, with strikers strangling fuel supplies at home and waving off airline flights from abroad.
The crisis has has increased the risks for President Nicolas Sarkozy, testing his ability to define the political agenda and reverse years of declining fortunes before elections in 2012. He faces a high-stakes gamble magnified by the political arena in which it is played out. Unlike an American president fighting an unruly Congress, Mr. Sarkozy knows he can bank on the French Parliament to support his contentious reforms. But, as the unpopularity of the proposed changes has shown, he cannot place equal faith in enhancing his own standing through a parliamentary victory.
“He has a clear majority in the two houses so he has no difficulty in passing the reform,” said Pierre Haski, a co-founder of the news Web site Rue89. “But that does not give him legitimacy with the public.” At worst, Mr. Haski said in a telephone interview, the upshot could be for Mr. Sarkozy to emerge from the crisis as a lame duck president for the next two years.
“It is a question of legality versus legitimacy,” he said.
Those issues will likely come to a head in the next 48 hours. On Tuesday, labor unions have called national stoppages, adding to the disruption that has been building since the first national protest strike against the pension reform on Sept. 7 and intensifying with strikes at oil refineries that entered their second week on Monday.
The government said only two percent of the country’s 13,200 service stations had actually run dry. But other estimates put the number of gas stations running out of some or all types of fuel at 10 to 15 percent.
Aad Van Bohemen, the head of emergency policy division at the International Energy Agency, said France had been forced to reach into its strategic, 30-day emergency supplies of fuel at depots because refineries were strike-bound. “The question is how to get it to the pumps,” he said in a telephone interview. “Some depots are blocked but there’s a lot of panic-buying going among the French people.”
And on Wednesday, the upper Senate will vote on — and probably approve — measures, already approved by the lower house, that will increase the minimum age of retirement by two years to 62, dealing a blow to the cosseted assumptions of French life. The reforms are supposed to help wrest France from the economic doldrums gripping many parts of Europe, and thus enable Mr. Sarkozy present himself as a champion of necessary change.
In a way both the labor unions, themselves far from united, and the authorities are playing for time.
Mr. Sarkozy’s ministers have repeatedly insisted they will not back down and, if necessary, will resort to firm measures to prevent protesters from blocking fuel depots.
With 98 days of oil stocks on hand, he said, “It’s a matter of logistics. It’s not really a matter of shortages.”
But the protesters are also fighting the clock. On Friday, school vacations begin and many analysts believe that will remove one significant source of protest — high-school pupils who took to the streets last Friday and on Monday, confronting riot police or blocking classes.
The outcome could help determine whether Mr. Sarkozy is able to present himself for the next two years as a courageous reformer in the national interest, or an elitist imposing unwanted reforms on the poor.
A widely-quoted survey in Le Parisien newspaper on Monday said 71 per cent of respondents either supported or were sympathetic to the strikers. “The government can win it despite threats of violence in the street, despite shortages, or simply by a vote of Parliament,” said Jérôme Sainte-Mairie, the head of the CSA polling institute. “But these 71 per cent translate into the cost of victory: it will be very high.”
“We are looking at a direct confrontation between public opinion and the president of the republic.”
Neither has Mr. Sarkozy much room for retreat. “He has gambled his prospects of victory on these reforms,” Mr. Haski said.
Such calculations intensified a mood of gathering crisis.
On Monday, half of France’s high speed train services were canceled. Some commuter trains were harder hit, along with the Paris-Brussels high-speed services, canceled because of a separate strike in Belgium. The Paris-London Eurostar was running normally.
At Paris airports, a small number of flights scheduled to leave on Monday were also delayed or canceled after a surprise strike by aircraft refuelers.
A spokeswoman for Air France said at least two long-haul flights from Paris — to Seattle and Mumbai — had had been forced to take off with insufficient fuel, necessitating refueling stops en route. Airlines flying into French airports on Monday were being advised to carry sufficient fuel for their return journeys, according to Eurocontrol, the agency in Brussels charged with coordinating European air traffic management.
On Monday, oil industry workers used blazing tires to prevent access to a refinery east of Paris, resisting management efforts to reopen it.
On highways near Lille in the north and Lyon in the south, truckers and protesters snarled traffic by what are called “snail” operations, slowing their vehicles to walking pace.
In the Paris suburb of Nanterre, riot police fired tear gas at some 300 high-school protesters who had set fire to a car, wrecked bus stops and hurled rocks, witnesses said. The authorities said disturbances had been reported Monday from 261 of the country’s 4,300 high schools — slightly less than in earlier unrest on Friday.