Hollande stands firm as unions vow to step up labour reform strikes

France's President Francois Hollande delivers his speech during a ceremony to pay homage after a fatal bus crash in Petit-Palais-Et-Cornemps, southwestern France, October 27, 2015. Forty-three people perished on Friday when a bus carrying elderly day-trippers hit a truck head-on and caught fire in France's worst road crash in more than 30 years. The bus and the truck collided near a forested bend on a two-lane road cut into a hillside near Puisseguin in the Gironde region, about 60 km (35 miles) east of Bordeaux. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau - RTX1TF1Q

France’s President Francois Hollande delivers his speech during a ceremony to pay homage after a fatal bus crash in Petit-Palais-Et-Cornemps, southwestern France, October 27, 2015. Forty-three people perished on Friday when a bus carrying elderly day-trippers hit a truck head-on and caught fire in France’s worst road crash in more than 30 years. The bus and the truck collided near a forested bend on a two-lane road cut into a hillside near Puisseguin in the Gironde region, about 60 km (35 miles) east of Bordeaux. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau – RTX1TF1Q

 

He said the government’s top priority was to ensure the “normal functioning of the economy” in the face of the most severe industrial action in two decades, including blockades of oil refineries and fuel depots that have left petrol pumps running dry.

While there were still long queues at filling stations in some parts of the country, the situation eased slightly in some areas as union blockades of fuel depots were lifted.

Earlier in the week 30 percent of stations were out of gas or running low, notably amid panic buying, but Total and the UFIP national oil industry lobby reported improvements on Friday.

Meanwhile, riot police moved in to sweep away a blockade of burning tyres at an oil depot near a refinery in Donge, western France.

But motorists in Paris were restricted to buying €40 ($45) of petrol per person at many stations, where queues built up ahead of the weekend.

Strikes also continued Friday at nuclear power stations – which provide three-quarters of the country’s electricity – but have so far failed to affect supply, authorities said.

‘Resist blackmail’

The employers’ federation, Medef, expressed growing anger over the effect the strikes are having on France’s fragile economic growth.

Medef chief Pierre Gattaz condemned the “thugs’ methods” of the unions and urged the government to “resist their blackmail”.

Small business owners were feeling the pinch too.

“It’s not good for business. I support helping people but not people who do nothing,” said Guillaume Bouvelot, 51, who owns a snack bar in an affluent district of Paris.

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

Union leaders also said the government’s response to the strikes and its “stubbornness” in refusing to withdraw the controversial bill was only “boosting the determination” of opponents to the reforms.

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