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France warns flights of fuel shortage amid protests

PARIS - Officials have taken the extraordinary step of warning some flights landing at France's main airport to come with enough fuel to get back home, bracing for a possible fuel shortage after a new round of protests yesterday against plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Police estimated some 825,000 people marched in cities across France to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to extend the retirement age to keep pension coffers full. That is fewer than during an Oct. 12 march - and far lower than the union estimate of 3 million. But unions are not relenting in fighting for what the French see as a near-sacred right to retire at 60.

A sixth round of nationwide protests is scheduled for Tuesday, a day before the Senate votes on the retirement reform, which must still return to both houses due to amendments tacked on during debates.

"I think the French understand that those who are blocking the country are at the head of the government," Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union, said on BFM-TV. He later called on the government to "suspend the parliamentary debate."

All 12 of France's fuel-producing refineries have been hit by strikes that started Tuesday and numerous fuel depots are blocked, triggering a run on gas pumps by fearful motorists.

Finance Minister Christine Legarde tried to assuage fears, insisting that there was no shortage of gasoline.

"Today, there is no reason, no reason, I repeat, to panic because there is no risk of shortages," she told BFM-TV yesterday, noting that only 230 of the country's 13,000 gas stations were out of fuel. "There are weeks of reserve."

The same could not be said for Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, which moved into a Plan B mode to keep planes flying in and out of the European hub while conserving a limited fuel supply.

The Civil Aviation Authority sent out an advisory Friday night to airlines making short- and medium-haul flights to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to arrive with enough fuel to get home, spokesman Eric Heraud said yesterday.

Sarkozy's pension reforms - especially raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 - are seen by unions as a betrayal of a basic right. The government has refused to budge on the central issue.

Even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe.

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