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Strike-hit France dips into fuel reserves

Thursday, May 26, 2016 - 06:57
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France said Wednesday it had been forced to dip into strategic fuel reserves due to blockades at refineries as power station workers threatened to join gathering protests against a labour law reform.

[PARIS] France said Wednesday it had been forced to dip into strategic fuel reserves due to blockades at refineries as power station workers threatened to join gathering protests against a labour law reform.

With queues at petrol stations lengthening by the day, Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the CGT union leading the disruption at refineries and fuel depots that it "does not make the law in France".

The CGT, locked in an increasingly bitter struggle with the government, has called for its action to be extended Thursday to nuclear power stations that supply 75 per cent of the country's electricity.

It has also called for rallies in major cities, upping the stakes after three months of protests against the reforms that have brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets.

France has nearly four months of fuel reserves and President Francois Hollande told a cabinet meeting that "everything will be done to ensure the French people and the economy is supplied".

But petrol shortages were becoming acute in many regions of France, and were spreading to Paris.

Viviane, a 66-year-old pensioner queuing to fill up her car in the Allier area of central France, said the situation reminded her of May 1968, when students and workers paralysed France for two weeks in protest at president Charles de Gaulle's government.

"I remember May '68 and I can tell you the shortages were no joke so I am taking precautions," she said.

"The current climate worries me, it's really not good, I fear a revolution." Worried drivers were using online apps to find petrol stations that still had fuel.

Notices at many filling stations said drivers were limited to just 20 litres (five gallons) of fuel each and the filling of jerry cans was banned.

The Ufip oil industry federation confirmed that with around a third of the country's 12,000 petrol pumps running dry, it had begun using strategic reserves.

Football fans will flood into France in two weeks' time when it begins hosting the Euro 2016 football championships, adding to the pressure on the government.

Ahead of Thursday's possible strike, one nuclear power plant in Nogent-sur-Seine, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) southeast of Paris, is already operating at reduced capacity.

As well as releasing fuel reserves, authorities stepped up efforts to break blockades.

Watched by 80 striking workers, riot police used water cannon to move burning tyres blocking access to a key oil depot in Douchy-les-Mines near the Belgian border that had been in place since Thursday.

"The police moved in quickly. They used water cannon. We got the feeling they were tense," Willy Dans, a spokesman for the local branch of the SUD union, told AFP.

Most petrol stations in that area were empty, forcing motorists to hop over the border to Belgium to fill up.

Police also removed a blockade at a fuel depot in the western port of Brest.

Transport was further hampered by a rolling train strike that was due to continue on Thursday.

Some companies said the fuel blockades were starting to hit their business.

"It's beginning to get to a critical point," said Pascal Barre, who runs a logistics firm in Poincy, east of the capital.

"We filled up at the end of last week and at the beginning of this week but our drivers need to fill up again and it's not possible." He warned: "If we can't deliver to shops and supermarkets, it's going to put France on its knees."

CGT leader Philippe Martinez has vowed to continue the action until the labour legislation is withdrawn.

The blockades have sparked warnings from oil giant Total, which operates five of the refineries affected, that it will be forced to reconsider its investment plans in France.

Mr Martinez hit back Wednesday, accusing Total of "blackmail".

Protesters are furious that the government rammed the controversial labour market reforms through parliament without a vote.

The reforms are designed to address France's famously rigid labour market by making it easier to hire and fire workers.

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

AFP