French police break fuel depot blockade, nuclear plant strike looms

Government standing firm on proposed new labour laws
By Ingrid Melander and Chine Labbé
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 05/25/2016

PARIS (Reuters) — Police broke up a fuel depot blockade in France on Wednesday and the hardline CGT union called a strike at a nuclear plant in an escalation of a standoff over proposed new labour laws.

Faced with shortages at dozens of petrol stations, France has mobilised its strategic oil stocks for the first time since the last major refinery strike in 2010, but officials said there was no underlying shortage, and no risk of one.

Ministers insisted on Wednesday that President Francois Hollande's government will stand firm and can ensure fuel supplies with strategic reserves large enough to last more than three months.

CGT chief Philippe Martinez insisted his union, one of the biggest in France but whose power is waning, would press on with its strikes.

"We will carry on," Martinez said on France Inter.

At stake is a reform of France's labour market to make it easier for firms to hire and fire, which the government says is crucial to fight rampant unemployment stuck at above 10 percent of the workforce.

The CGT says the bill, which the government pushed through the lower house of parliament without a vote in the face of a rebellion within the ruling party, will dismantle protective labour regulation. Other unions back the latest, watered down version.

Street protests over the bill have been going on for weeks, but with dwindling turnout too, despite violence on their fringes that has left hundreds of police injured.

Meanwhile the CGT strikes have affected the transport sector, oil depots and refineries.

But a train strike on Wednesday was having less impact than a previous one last week, with the SNCF rail operator saying 3 out of 4 fast trains and 6 out of 10 regular inter-city train were running. Only 10.6 percent of workers heeded the strike call, it said.

As well as embarrassing an already deeply unpopular government, the labour reform dispute has put a spotlight on the battle for influence between France's two largest unions, the CGT and the more moderate CFDT. The CFDT's refusal to join strike calls could blunt the impact of the industrial action.

"Withdrawing the law would be unacceptable," CFDT secretary general Laurent Berger told Le Parisien daily, saying the law gives workers welcome new rights. He denounced "posturing" from both the rival CGT union and the government.


"UNBLOCK"

Police used water cannons in the early hours of Wednesday to dislodge some 80 unionists who were blocking a fuel depot at Douchy-les-Mines, in northern France, union and police officials said. Other facilities were unblocked by police on Tuesday.

CGT workers voted for a 24-hour strike starting at 1900 GMT on Wednesday at the Nogent-sur-Seine nuclear plant southeast of Paris and workers at other nuclear plants will meet today to decide on possible further strikes, Laurent Langlard, a spokesman for the CGT's energy federation said.

The strike is unlikely to lead to blackouts even if it spreads to several of France's 19 plants because an extensive network of power interconnections with neighbouring countries allows grid operator RTE to import any shortfall in nuclear power production.

With regard to fuel shortages at filling stations, UFIP spokeswoman Catherine Enck said only "a small quantity" of the government's strategic oil and fuel stocks had been drawn.

According to one industry expert, the aim was to ease supply constraints caused by the disruption and panic buying, but the stock itself was constantly being replenished through imports.

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