Hollande defiant as unions vow to step up unrest

2016-05-27 16:01
A protester lies on the ground after getting injured in clashes during a demonstration held in Paris as part of nationwide labour action. (Francois Mori, AP)

A protester lies on the ground after getting injured in clashes during a demonstration held in Paris as part of nationwide labour action. (Francois Mori, AP)

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Paris - French President Francois Hollande vowed on Friday to "stand firm" over a controversial labour law as unions called on workers to step up a wave of industrial action gripping the country.

France is battling fuel shortages, transport disruption and violent demonstrations, just as it gears up to host the Euro 2016 football championships in two weeks' time.

"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 the most severe industrial action for 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.

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 $45 of petrol per person at many stations, where queues built up ahead of the weekend.

Strikes also continued 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.

The legislation at the heart of the dispute aims to reform France's notoriously rigid labour laws by making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers.

And 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 refusing to withdraw the contested law 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".

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.

Street violence

Tens of thousands of activists staged a demonstration in Paris on Thursday that descended into violence.

Riot police used tear gas after masked youths smashed windows and damaged cars in the latest outburst of anger over the controversial legislation.

About 153 000 people took to the streets across France on Thursday, officials said, while union leaders put the number at 300 000.

French authorities said 62 demonstrators were taken into custody, while 15 policemen were injured in clashes.

Many organisations, including the International Monetary Fund, have said the labour reforms are necessary to create jobs in a country where around 10% of the workforce are idle.

But the CGT union which is leading the protest is furious that the government forced the legislation through parliament and is demanding it be scrapped altogether.

Unions argue the reforms favour business at the expense of workers' rights and are unlikely to bring down high unemployment.

They have urged rolling strikes on the Paris Metro to start on the day of the opening match of Euro 2016 on June 10, giving the organisers new headaches on top of security concerns sparked by last November's jihadist attacks in Paris.

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

But there are signs of cracks within the government, with Finance Minister Michel Sapin suggesting the most contested part of the law should be rewritten.

Valls, however, ruled out revamping the clause, which gives individual companies a freer hand in setting working conditions.

Read more on:    france

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