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French government breaks blockades as petrol runs short

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 06:44
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France's government stepped up efforts Tuesday to break blockades and strikes at refineries that are threatening to paralyse the country just three weeks ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

[PARIS] France's government stepped up efforts Tuesday to break blockades and strikes at refineries that are threatening to paralyse the country just three weeks ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

But the leader of the CGT, the union driving the action, vowed to continue the disruption until the Socialist government withdraws planned reforms to the labour laws.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to clear a blockade erected by CGT activists at the key Fos-sur-Mer refinery near the southern city of Marseille.

At least six out of the eight refineries in France have either stopped operating or have reduced output due to strikes and blockades.

With a fifth of the country's 12,000 service stations either dry or low on fuel, President Francois Hollande said a deadlock caused "by a minority" was unacceptable.

The chief executive of Total said Tuesday the disruption meant the French oil giant would have to "seriously review" its investment plans in France.

"If our colleagues want to take an industrial asset hostage for a cause that is foreign to the company, you have to ask whether that is where we should invest," Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne told reporters.

Total operates five of the refineries that are affected.

Adding to the pressure on the government, hundreds of thousands of football fans will soon travel to France for the month-long European football championships that kick off on June 10.

Mr Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed to lift the blockades, part of an escalating three-month campaign of strikes against the labour reforms.

Mr Valls appealed to the CGT union, France's largest, to act responsibly.

"To take consumers, our economy, our industry hostage in this way - to continue actions aimed at getting the draft law withdrawn - is not democratic," Mr Valls said, speaking during a visit to Israel.

At dawn on Tuesday, riot police clashed with union activists as they moved in to lift a blockade of the refinery and fuel depots at Fos-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast.

The local police authority said officers had met "significant resistance" and several police and activists had been hurt.

Police would attempt to clear blockades at other refineries, Mr Valls said.

But CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez remained defiant.

Most people in France opposed the labour reforms that the union was fighting, he told BFMTV. The prime minister was playing "a dangerous game" trying to set the CGT against the wider population, he said.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri told parliament that while the government respected the right to strike, blocking transport routes went beyond that.

"Can the CGT bring the country to a standstill?" asked the left-leaning daily Liberation asked on its front page Tuesday.

Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, first secretary of the Socialist Party, told reporters: "It's not for a trade union organisation to make the law." Some local authorities in the north and northwest of France have imposed rationing of petrol supplies.

In the northeast meanwhile, motorists were crossing the border to fill up at Belgian petrol stations.

A few minutes' drive from France, in Hertain, Belgium, a 24-year-old lorry driver who gave his name as Amazigh, was grateful for the lifeline.

"Without petrol, we can't work. Here, I filled up for tomorrow and I can go back to Lille," the French city just 18 kilometres (11 miles) away.

In Belgium itself, riot police fired water cannon at anti-austerity protesters Tuesday as unions there called for mass protests and strikes over their government's proposed labour reforms.

To add to the French government's problems, rail unions are due to strike from Wednesday for two days.

Another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations against the draft law has been called for Thursday.

And the unions representing ground staff and air traffic controllers on Tuesday threatened to call a three-day strike from June 3 as part of a separate dispute.

Opponents of the labour reforms say they are too pro-business and will do little to reduce France's jobless rate of around 10 per cent.

But an International Monetary Fund report backed the government on Tuesday, arguing that the reforms were needed to reduce joblessness.

The government controversially forced the legislation through the National Assembly without a vote earlier this month.

It still faces a vote in the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

AFP