French government breaks blockades as petrol runs short

French gendarmes take position as striking workers blockade roads near a French oil refinery on May 24, 2016, over labour reforms.
French gendarmes take position as striking workers blockade roads near a French oil refinery on May 24, 2016, over labour reforms.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - France's government stepped up efforts on Tuesday (May 24) to break blockades and strikes at refineries that are threatening to paralyse the country just three weeks ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to clear a blockade at one key refinery in the south of France where activists from the CGT union were protesting against the Socialist government's labour law reforms.

With a fifth of service stations either dry or running low on fuel, President Francois Hollande said a deadlock caused "by a minority" was unacceptable.


At least six out of the eight refineries in France have either stopped operating or reduced output due to strikes and blockades.

The chief executive of Total said the disruption meant the French oil giant would have to "seriously review" its investment plans in France.

Five of the refineries affected are run by Total.

"If our colleagues want to take an industrial asset hostage for a cause that is foreign to the company, you have to ask whether that is where we should invest," Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanne told reporters on Tuesday.

Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed to lift the blockade, which is part of a three-month campaign of strikes against the labour reforms.

Adding to the pressure on the government, hundreds of thousands of football fans will soon travel to France for the month-long European football championships that kick off on June 10.

And the aviation unions on Tuesday threatened to call a three-day strike from June 3 as part of a separate dispute.

Valls called on the CGT union, which is leading the strike action at the refineries, to act responsibly.

"To take consumers, our economy, our industry hostage in this way - to continue actions aimed at getting the draft law withdrawn - is not democratic," he said, speaking during a visit to Israel.

At dawn on Tuesday, riot police moved in to lift a blockade of the refinery and fuel depots at Fos-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille.

The local police authority said officers had met "significant resistance", with objects thrown, and several police and activists had been hurt.

Valls said: "We will continue to clear the sites, the depots, which are today blocked by this organisation."

But CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez remained defiant.

Most people in France opposed the labour reforms that the union was fighting, he told BFMTV. The Prime Minister was playing "a dangerous game" trying to set the CGT against the wider population, he said.

Some local authorities in the north and northwest of France have imposed rationing of petrol supplies.

Some motorists in the Paris region have resorted to tracking down fuel tankers and following them to petrol stations.

MEDEF, France's employers' organisation, called on the government to "re-establish the rule of law".

In the northeast meanwhile, motorists were driving over the border to stock up at Belgian stations.

A few minutes' drive from France, in Hertain, Belgium, a 24-year-old lorry driver who gave his name as Amazigh, was grateful for the lifeline.

"Without petrol, we can't work. Here, I filled up for tomorrow and I can go back to Lille," the French city just 18km away.

In Belgium itself, riot police fired water cannon at anti-austerity protesters on Tuesday as unions there called for mass protests and strikes over their government's proposed labour reforms.

To add to the French government's problems, rail unions are due to strike from Wednesday for two days.

And unions have planned another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations against the draft law on Thursday.

Opponents say the labour reforms are too pro-business and will do little to reduce unemployment.

But the reforms, which would make it easier to hire and fire workers, were backed Tuesday by the International Monetary Fund.

A new IMF report said the measures were needed to bring down France's jobless rate of 9.9 per cent.

"The economy is recovering, but not at a pace that will bring about the needed reduction in France's high level of unemployment and public debt," said the report.

The government controversially forced the legislation through the National Assembly without a vote earlier this month.

The legislation still faces a vote in the Senate, the upper house of parliament.