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 By Tim Montgomerie

Screen shot 2010-10-19 at 07.46.33Public services throughout France have been affected. Trains and flights have been cancelled. Schoolchildren have boycotted classes. Most worryingly for the stability of France, oil refineries have been blockaded – threatening supplies to the nation's petrol stations.

Protests – which the government estimates have involved 1.2 million strikers and which the unions claim have involved 3.5 million – focus on President Sarkozy's pension reforms including a plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

With majorities in both houses of the French parliament Sarkozy can achieve passage of his reforms but one poll found 71% of voters in sympathy with the strikers. He refuses to compromise, however, describing the reforms as "essential". He is resisting lobbying by unions and the French Left to cover pensions deficits with higher taxes. He says that France already has some of the highest taxes in the developed world and even higher taxes would render the nation uncompetitive.

Francois Fillon, Sarkozy's Prime Minister, said that he would not let the French economy suffocate because of the strikers' targeting of fuel depots. "The right to strike does not mean," he said, "the right to block a fuel depot.” French strikes have become less potent since the ending of strike pay. Walkouts still happen but are now much shorter in duration.

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