France’s Valls stands firm on labour reforms despite fuel blockade

 

Manuel Valls

Manuel Valls

The stand-off between France’s government and a hardline union over labour reforms stiffened on Wednesday as the country mobilised strategic oil stocks for the first time in 6 years and employers warned the protests were starting to hurt the economy.

Police broke up a fuel depot blockade with water cannons while the CGT union called a strike at a nuclear plant, in an escalation which a majority of French fear could disrupt the Euro 2016 football championship.

Ministers insisted that Socialist President Francois Hollande’s government would stand firm and ensure fuel supplies, with strategic reserves large enough to last more than three months.

“The CGT does not rule this country,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers.” We won’t withdraw the (reforms).”

CGT chief Philippe Martinez, however, said his union, one of the biggest in France but whose power is waning and is banking a lot on this wave of protests, would press on with its strikes. “We will carry on,” Martinez told France Inter radio.

At stake is a labour market reform to make it easier for firms to hire and fire. The government says it is crucial to fight rampant unemployment stuck at above 10 percent of the workforce. The CGT says it would dismantle protective labour regulation.

Other unions back the latest version of the reforms, which have been watered down by the government.

Both the CGT and the government are digging their heels in with an eye of the month-long Euro soccer championship due to start on June 10.

A majority of French fear the tournament, which will already be operating under high security after last year’s Islamist attacks on Paris, will be disrupted by protests, and worry the impact on the country’s image abroad, a poll showed.

Nearly two thirds would blame the government for it, the survey by Odoxa pollsters showed.

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 CFDT, whose refusal to join strike calls could blunt the impact of the industrial action.

Street protests over the law have been going on for weeks but with dwindling turnout. As they failed to convince the government to budge further, the CGT moved on to sectoral strikes such as thosetargeting refineries.

Total, which operates about a fifth of France’s stations, said 348 out of its 2,200 petrol stations were out of stock.

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.

France’s main employers group nevertheless said they were worried and warned that the protests were starting to have an impact on the economy and could push fragile business to bankruptcy.

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.