French President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval rating has sunk to its lowest level yet, a poll reported Sunday, as protests over his pension reforms left the country struggling with gas shortages, travel chaos and school shutdowns.
Despite raids by riot police last week to force open refineries blocked by striking workers, France's 12 refineries were blocked again Sunday, as were ports in Marseille and Le Havre, where dozens of tankers are still anchored, waiting to unload.
France's MEDEF business lobby sounded an alarm about the "seriousness" of the economic fallout from the strikes. In statement Sunday, the group - which has supported Sarkozy's pension reforms - said merchandise shipped by rail was at a virtual standstill, while products shipped by truck were "considerably delayed."
"These two phenomena have brought about serious malfunctioning in most industrial companies, in construction and public works," the statement said. It added that tourists and businesspeople are also canceling their planned visits to France.
The poll, published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, showed that only 29 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Sarkozy's performance. That was down 3 percent from September and was the French leader's lowest rating since taking office in 2007. It was also among the lowest approval ratings of any French president in recent memory, the newspaper said.
The survey of 1,828 people was conducted in person and by telephone by the Ifop polling agency on Oct. 14-22. No margin of error was given.
Sarkozy has tied his political future to the contested pension reform, which if it becomes law as expected this week will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The government contends the reform is necessary to save the money-losing pension system, but the opposition calls it an attack on French workers' rights.
The demonstrations have brought millions onto the streets, and open-ended walkouts by railway and petroleum workers have wreaked havoc on commuters and travelers. Still, polls have shown the vast majority of French people support the strikers.
Sarkozy adviser Raymond Soubie told Europe-1 radio on Sunday that gasoline shortages had eased but admitted that a quarter of France's gas stations were still shuttered. The hardest-hit areas were in western France and around Paris, he said.
"Will the situation improve? Yes it will, but slowly, progressively," Soubie said, adding that the government made stocking highway gas stations a priority ahead of the two-week Toussaint school holidays that began Saturday.
But Saturday's unusually smooth traffic suggested many would-be vacationers opted to stay home.
With garbage collectors in Marseille still on strike, 9,000 tons of rubbish has piled up on the streets of the Mediterranean port city and its suburbs. The head of the region took legal action Sunday to force strikers back to work, and some workers will begin clearing the hills of festering trash on Monday.
The Senate voted 177-153 on Friday to pass the pension reform bill, which is expected to win final formal approval this week. Nevertheless, unions have already announced two new nationwide protests for Thursday and Nov. 6.
Sarkozy insists with French life expectancy increasing and the country's debt soaring, the retirement age must be raised to save the pension system. Other countries across Europe are in a similar bind and many have overhauled their own retirement plans.
Associated Press writer Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.