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French govt keeps up tough line as petrol shortages ease

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French Prime Minister Manuel Valls

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls

The French government maintained a hard line Saturday ahead of a fresh wave of protest over a bitterly disputed labour law that has seen demonstrators blockading oil refineries and strikes paralysing the transport network.

The escalating unrest, which has gathered pace over the last week sparking petrol shortages that forced the government to dip into strategic fuel reserves, comes just weeks before football fans flood into the country for the Euro 2016 championships.

At issue is a controversial labour law which the government forced through parliament without a vote aimed at freeing up France’s famously-rigid labour market and bringing down high unemployment, which unions say favours companies at the expense of workers’ rights.

They are demanding it be scrapped.

Despite the protests, the government has remained defiant, with riot police on Friday moving into clear blockades outside 15 petrol depots, and President Francois Hollande vowing not to give in to union demands.

His tough line was echoed Saturday by Prime Minister Manuel Valls ahead of talks with bosses in the oil and transport industries, the two sectors worst hit by the protests.

“My responsibility as head of government is to ensure that people can buy petrol and that businesses won’t be penalised by the blockages,” he said, pledging to defend the law “to the end”.

“We will continue clearing these sites with determination,” he said as hoteliers and restaurateurs reported “major cancellations” in Paris and in the west over the strikes and petrol shortages.

Saturday’s talks were aimed at taking stock of the petrol shortages following the partial or total closure of six of the country’s eight refineries. Several of the sites have been operating at reduced capacity due to the ongoing union action.

‘Petrol situation improving’

With most of the blockades cleared by police on Friday, the situation was much improved although the government said around 20 percent of petrol stations were still suffering shortages.

“The situation is improving this morning,” Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said after the talks, while cautioning that it was too early to say the petrol crisis had been resolved.

“We cannot yet say the crisis is over.”

Further protests are expected next week with strikes expected to hit the rail network, the Paris Metro and civil aviation on Tuesday.

With petrol in short supply, many disgruntled motorists were forced to wait in long queues at service stations. Despite the disruption, polls suggest two out of three people — or 66 percent — are in favour of a withdrawal of the text “to avoid the country grinding to a halt”.

After a day of major protests on Thursday which authorities said brought 153,000 people on to the streets — organisers put the figure at 300,000 — the eight unions opposing to the law urged demonstrators to “step up the mobilisation”

The stoppages are part of a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations that have seriously disrupted France, sparking sometimes violent confrontations with the police.

Earlier this week, France’s civil aviation body appealed to airlines to fuel up abroad before arriving in Paris from European destinations to ensure they could make the return flight, in a move that Air France insisted was merely precautionary.

Strikes also continued at nuclear power stations — which provide three-quarters of the country’s electricity — but have so far failed to affect supply, authorities said.

Union ‘blackmail’

The employers’ federation, Medef, expressed anger over the effect the strikes are having on France’s fragile economic growth, urging the government to resist the unions’ “blackmail”.

Tourist bookings were also hit, with hoteliers nervous that Euro 2016 visitors may be put off by the industrial action.

But all the main unions were in no mood to back down, urging workers to “multiply and support” the strikes and slamming the government’s “stubbornness” in refusing to withdraw the contested law.

The strikes come a year ahead of an election in which Hollande is considering standing again despite poll ratings that are among the lowest for a French leader in modern history.

The CGT union that has led the protests has called for rolling strikes on the Paris Metro network to start on June 10, the day Euro 2016 begins, giving the organisers new headaches on top of security concerns sparked by last November’s jihadist attacks in Paris.


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