Petrol shortage as French labour reform protesters block refineries

23rd May 2016, Comments 0 comments

Petrol shortages caused long tailbacks of motorists in parts of France on Monday as protesters angry over government labour reforms blockaded some of the country's oil refineries and fuel depots.

The action was the latest in three months of strikes and protests against the reform, which has set the Socialist government against some of its traditional supporters and sometimes sparked violence.

Workers downed tools at six of France's eight refineries on Monday, the CGT union said.

The northwest of the country was worst hit at the weekend, with riot police dispersing protesters at some fuel depots.

The situation was exacerbated by some motorists rushing to stock up fearing that supplies were about to run out.

"Talking about a shortage creates the shortage," said Finance Minister Michel Sapin.

Local authorities in some areas imposed rationing.

The government of embattled President Francois Hollande -- who is deeply unpopular and faces re-election next year -- said the situation had improved since Sunday when 1,500 of the country's 12,000 petrol stations had run dry, but did not have fresh figures.

The Total group said 509 of its 2,200 stations had either run out or were suffering shortages Monday, up from 390 the previous day.

- Burning tyres -

Tailbacks slowed traffic, particularly in the northwest, where motorists waited for up to an hour to get to the pumps at some filling stations.

Originally concentrated in northwest France, the protest action has spread south.

At Fos-sur-Mer, near the Mediterranean port of Marseille, about 500 union activists closed a road leading to a fuel depot with burning tyres. Another road to the nearby refinery was also blocked.

And in Donges, near Nantes on the northwest coast, union activists used wooden pallets and burning tyres to block access to a fuel depot.

The government, which forced the reform bill through the lower house of parliament earlier this month without a vote, insists it will not back down on the labour reform.

Opponents say the law will erode job security and do little to bring down the unemployment rate, stuck at 10 percent and nearly 25 percent for young people.

The government argues that the new law will make France's notoriously rigid labour market more flexible and create jobs.

Speaking during a visit to Israel on Sunday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the blockade of the fuel depots.

"I'm asking everyone to face up to reality, not to put the country's economy in difficulty and to respect the users," Valls told BFMTV.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, the author of the reform, condemned the blockades Monday.

"I have a hard time accepting that workers are being held hostage, that the French people are being held hostage," she said during a visit to Marseille.

- More strikes planned -

In a gesture to road haulage drivers over the weekend, the government promised that their overtime pay would not be affected by the reform as they had feared.

But another day of strikes and demonstrations against the draft law is planned for Thursday.

"If the government does not withdraw its plan... the mobilisation will continue and increase," CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez warned Monday on RTL radio.

The union has also called an indefinite strike in the Paris metro for June 2, barely a week before the start of the Euro 2016 football tournament hosted by France. Another day of action is planned for June 14.

Finance Minister Michel Sapin condemned the CGT's action, telling French television: "There is a certain point... at which (protest) action becomes illegitimate."

Last week, train drivers and air traffic controllers walked off the job, causing cancellations across the country.

Many of the rallies and demonstrations have ended in confrontation between masked youths and riot police.

Some 350 members of the security forces have been injured in demonstrations since March.

The proposed law now faces a vote in the upper house Senate.

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© 2016 AFP

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