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PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in police to clear access to barricaded French fuel depots and restore supply as trade unions kept up their resistance on Wednesday to a pension reform due for a final vote this week.
Fuel imports hit a record high on Tuesday, the government said, as it tried to get round a 24-day blockade of France's largest oil port, near Marseille, where 51 oil tankers lay idle in the Mediterranean, unable to dock.
With more than 3,000 service stations out of nearly 12,500 in France out of fuel, police could also be deployed to clear access to striking oil refineries, according to Sarkozy's order.
A nine-day transport strike in 2007 cost France about 400 million euros ($550 million) a day, according to the economy ministry, although analysts do not see the current strikes costing as much.
Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said on Britain's Channel 4 television that she could not estimate the full cost of the strike action for France but it was unlikely to have a major impact on gross domestic product if it did not last too long.
Earlier on France's TF1 television Lagarde said the government hoped petrol pumps would be full again in a few days, and urged people rioting on the fringes of protests or blockading fuel depots to think about France's image and its need to speed up its economic recovery.
"I truly appeal to people's sense of responsibility, particularly those who think it's fun to blockade things and smash them up," Lagarde said. "It's serious for our country because France is missing a chance to come out of the crisis under better conditions than others."
The centre-right government has stood firm through a wave of anti-pension reform action since the summer but the most serious test of its resolve has been ongoing strikes that began last Tuesday at the country's 12 refineries and riots this week on the fringes of protests in Lyon and a western Paris suburb.
Sarkozy said earlier the government would not let the country be paralysed by protests against a pension reform that seeks to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.
"If this disorder is not ended quickly, the attempt to paralyse the country could have consequences for jobs by disrupting the normal functioning of the economy," he told a cabinet meeting in remarks released by his office.
With a Senate vote on the pension reform expected by the end of the week, unions tried to tighten their grip on key sectors of the economy with a ninth day of refinery strikes, go-slows by truck drivers and work stoppages at regional airports.
The wave of protests -- which drew at least one million people on Tuesday or 3.5 million according to unions -- has become the biggest and most persistent challenge to austerity measures and economic reforms being enacted across Europe.
Backed by a majority of voters, unions are trying to force Sarkozy -- whose ratings are near record lows 18 months before a presidential election -- to retreat on what is seen as the defining reform of his presidency.
Police have cleared access to 21 oil depots since Friday.
Strikes halted operations at two of France's three liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. Public utility EDF told Reuters there was no immediate risk of LNG shortages.
"We're ready to continue striking every day and go all the way," a CGT union representative near Marseille told Reuters.
Yields on French 10-year bonds have risen since the protests began in the summer to stand 39 basis points above German benchmark debt. This is up from around 26 basis points in May as investors worried about euro zone budget deficits and the French demonstrations demand a risk premium for holding France's debt.
Protests have been peaceful except for sporadic episodes of violence in the southeastern city of Lyon and the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where clashes between youths and police broke out again on Wednesday. Youths in both cities burnt cars and threw projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas, police said.
Nearly 1,500 alleged rioters have been arrested so far, 428 of them after flare-ups on Tuesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said, and police stepped up security in Lyon.
The Senate is working its way through amendments to the bill and a final vote could come late on Friday, at the weekend or be put off until Monday. The legislation is widely expected to be approved as the key provisions have already passed.
The government is betting that protests will gradually fizzle out as 10 days of school holidays start on Friday evening, but unions say they will not back down.
"You cannot say, 'now that it's been adopted we simply swallow the law and everyone goes home'. I think we have to go on," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union.
Additional reporting by Mathilde Cru, Yann Le Guernigou, Jean-Baptiste Vey and Emile Picy; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Michael Roddy