Marseille close to standstill as worst strikes in 15 years cause French chaos
By Harriet Alexander, Marseille
The cars abandoned along the stretch of motorway leading to Marseille Airport made it look as if the inhabitants of France’s second city had fled some terrible disaster.
Their owners had in fact parked as neatly as they could and dragged their suitcases to the terminal on foot to catch flights to holiday destinations and business meetings – the only way to get past the barricades that were thrown up by protesters on Thursday morning.
Marseille has been crippled by strikers. A fleet of huge ships cruises offshore, unable to dock, their lights reflecting against the still waters of the port at night. From the air it looks like a giant game of Battleships.
In the city centre, streets are still piled high with rubbish after the refuse collectors joined dock workers, train drivers, students and airport staff who have brought the city almost to a standstill.
The worst period of strikes and civil disobedience for 15 years erupted after President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to introduce austerity measures – in particular raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. As the anger rose, so did the piles of rubbish in Marseille’s streets.
“This city looks like a war zone,” said William Paterson, an American-French lawyer who has lived there for 18 years. “How can this be allowed to happen?”
It was a question that is being asked with increasing anguish across the whole of France.
On Friday, after days of debate, the Senate voted to adopt the new pension law, which is now likely to become law this week. As senators debated, battles raged on the streets. In Paris on Tuesday police used tear gas against crowds in the suburb of Nanterre, during the sixth national strike since June.
The Foreign Office urged Britons to stay away from protests and warned that industrial action could affect half-term holiday plans. On Friday 700 riot police fought running battles with rampaging youths through the streets of Lyon.
Strikes at oil refineries, which began in Marseille in September, caused panic buying and nationwide shortages – one in five petrol stations were empty yesterday.
In the Seine et Marne region, an hour’s drive east of the capital, there were ugly scenes as riot police forced their way through picket lines to reopen the Grandpuits refinery, the main one for the Paris region.
Mr Sarkozy remained defiant in the face of the protests, telling his supporters: “It is not troublemakers who will have the last word in a democracy.”
His fighting talk made little difference in Marseille.
In the city, streets were blockaded. The normally bustling port of Fos-sur-Mer, half an hour away, was eerily empty; it looked more like a disused set for a science-fictions film than France’s biggest oil refinery. The staff canteen in the docks was empty; knives and forks were set for workers who had not shown up. Tanker lorries queued up at the locked gates for oil that had not arrived.
“It gives France a terrible image internationally,” said Patrick Le Dez, who works for Vectorys, a shipping company.
“We are trying to rebuild the image of Marseille as a port to do business in, and this minority of striking workers undermines the hard work of the vast majority.”
Mr Le Dez’s daughter, a 31-year-old pharmaceutical representative based in Brussels, returned from a business trip to Washington last week and told her father she was ashamed to be French. “France has this reputation with everyone as being constantly on strike,” he said.
Although much of the French middle class does support the right to strike many are beginning to object to having vital public services cut off.
An opinion poll broadcast by Canal Plus television on Friday showed that most French voters backed the strikes, by a margin of 69 per cent to 29 – but that 52 per cent opposed the blockade of refineries. Yesterday the Right-wing newspaper Le Figaro published the results of another survey which found 56 per cent of respondents wanted the protests to end once the pension reform is passed. A third still support the strikes, though, and only 26 per cent were strongly opposed.
It is a struggle on which Mr Sarkozy, suffering historically low poll ratings, has staked his political future. His government cannot afford to back down on the austerity measures – either economically or politically – and the unions are not prepared to back down.
“I just want to tell them to get back to work now,” said Patricia Bardet, a project manager at the container terminal.
Riad Khemissa, 17, was sitting on his scooter outside the empty Lycée Régional Montgrand – a high school of approximately 600 students in central Marseille.
The door to the school was blocked with bins, bags of fetid rubbish and the charred remains of a fire that had blazed perilously close to the building.
Scores of police in body armour and dark sunglasses watched students.
“We are outside class to support the workers,” said Riad. “We are the next generation, and we should all be worried about these new work laws. But it is cool not to be in school,” he added with a grin.
“Although I think Sarkozy is wrong with the reforms, I am not sure this is the best way to go about things,” said fellow student Nour El Said, 18. “We need to study and think about our future, and I want to do well in school.”
As she spoke, sirens wailed and army trucks rumbled past, transporting teams to clear the city’s streets, dressed in white protective clothing that looked more suited to the aftermath of nuclear war than rubbish collection.
Officials advised the public to beware of rats and diseases, with an estimated 9,000 tons of rubblish in the streets.
But while Marseille struggled to restore order, the men causing the bins to overflow were gathered on wasteland coordinating the disruption, drinking beer and playing petanque besides their rubbish trucks.
“We want the French people to realise the significance of what is happening,” said Sebastien Cravero, 31, a refuse collector. “We won’t ever accept this measure. We’ve blockaded a food depot, we blockaded Marseille airport, we are supporting the oil workers strike. It’s a cat and mouse game with the police.
“When they have nothing left to eat and no more petrol, they will need to back down.”
Mr Cravero and his band of 60 striking refuse collectors claim that they have the support of the people, who are fed up with Mr Sarkozy’s perceived wealth and “bling” while he enacts austerity measures.
“He wants to freeze our salaries until 2013 – but when he came to power, he raised his by 140 per cent,” he said. “How is that acceptable?”
The French unions on Friday called for two more national strikes – on Thursday this week and on Saturday Nov 6.
France’s main student union UNEF also called on its members to take to the streets on Tuesday, to show the government that the wider protest movement was not fizzling out during the half-term school holidays.
“We are the country of le droit de l’homme and it is our duty to protect our rights,” said Mr Cravero.
So what advice would he give to the British, who have just been told that their legal retirement will rise to 67? “Join the uprising. It’s time to revolt.”