Hollande defiant in face of French industrial unrest

27th May 2016, Comments 0 comments

A defiant French President Francois Hollande vowed to "stand firm" over a controversial labour law, hitting back Friday at unions which urged workers to step up a wave of industrial action.

The latest war of words between the government and unions came as France reels from fuel shortages, transport disruption and violent demonstrations, two weeks to the day that it begins hosting the Euro 2016 football championships.

"I will stand firm because I think it is a good reform," Hollande told reporters at a G7 summit in Japan.

He said the government's top priority was to ensure the "normal functioning of the economy" in the face of blockades of oil refineries and fuel depots that have left petrol pumps running dry.

While there were still long queues at petrol stations in some parts of the country, the fuel situation appeared to have eased early Friday, as the government dipped into its strategic reserves for a fifth consecutive day.

But the social unrest showed little sign of easing as unions urged workers to pile the pressure on Hollande's deeply unpopular Socialist government.

Representatives of all the main unions urged workers to "multiply and support" the strikes.

They said the government's response to the strikes and its "stubbornness" in not withdrawing the contested law was only "boosting the determination" of opponents to the legislation.

Hollande responded to the unions that dialogue was "always possible", but the government would not come to the negotiating table if threatened by "an ultimatum".

- Social unrest -

The unions' call came a day after tens of thousands of activists rallied in Paris as they have done for the past three months in an increasingly bitter standoff.

Masked youths smashed windows and damaged cars in central Paris, prompting riot police to fire tear gas in the latest outburst of anger over the controversial legislation.

Some 153,000 people took to the streets around the country on Thursday, officials said, though union leaders put the number at 300,000.

French authorities said 62 demonstrators were taken into custody across the country, 32 of them in the capital, while 15 security officers were injured in clashes.

One person was badly hurt in the unrest in Paris and had to be hospitalised, police said.

Workers at nuclear power stations -- which provide three-quarters of the country's electricity -- have voted to down tools but authorities say the stoppages have not yet affected electricity supply.

Although the fuel situation was improving, many motorists were still stuck in long queues at petrol stations around France, including the Paris region.

Pierre Jata, a 40-year-old cable TV technician, was rushing to fill up at a petrol station on the edge of the capital on Thursday, minutes before supplies ran out.

He laid the blame for the disruption on the government.

"I'm with the unions. I'm with them but I'm still annoyed," he said.

A man in his 50s had to be airlifted to hospital after a motorist rammed a roadblock outside a petrol refinery at Fos-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast.

At the Tricastin nuclear plant in southern France, workers set fire to piles of tyres on Thursday, sending clouds of black smoke into the sky.

- PM mulls 'improvements' -

Unions are furious about the legislation forced through parliament aimed at reforming France's notoriously rigid labour laws by making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers.

Many organisations, including the International Monetary Fund, have said the labour legislation is necessary to create jobs.

But unions are demanding the reforms be scrapped altogether, arguing they favour business at the expense of workers' rights and are unlikely to bring down high unemployment.

They have called for rolling strikes on the Paris Metro to start on the day of the opening match of the European Championships on June 10.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has insisted the legislation will not be withdrawn, but says it might still be possible to make "changes" or "improvements".

But there were signs that some in the ruling Socialist Party were buckling, with Finance Minister Michel Sapin suggesting the most contested part of the legislation should be rewritten.

Valls slapped Sapin down and ruled out revamping the clause, which gives individual companies a freer hand in setting working conditions.

"You cannot blockade a country, you cannot attack the economic interests of France in this way," a defiant Valls told parliament, after earlier branding the hardline CGT union that is driving the protests "irresponsible".

The mounting problems for the government 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.

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© 2016 AFP

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