October 23, 2016

French fuel blockade lifted, Hollande says won’t let protesters choke economy

A striking French labour union employee stands near a burning barricade during a police operation to free up a fuel depot near the Donges oil refinery

French riot police removed picketers and barricades blocking access to a large fuel distribution depot as President Francois Hollande warned anti-reform protesters on Friday that he would not let them strangle the economy.

The police operation to free up a fuel depot near the Donges oil refinery in western France followed similar swoops at other depots this week to ease petrol shortages caused by picketers fighting planned labour law reforms.

Speaking in Japan after a summit with other world leaders, Hollande said France’s economy was starting to pick up and should not be derailed by opponents of a reform designed to make hiring and firing easier.

“I will stay the course because this is a good reform and we must go all the way to adoption,” the Socialist leader said. “This is not the time to put the French economy in difficulty.”

Hollande’s appeal was directed above all at the hardline CGT labour union, which is leading street protests, public transport strikes and fuel supply pickets that also risk disrupting the France-hosted European soccer tournament next month.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months for protests marred by violence on the fringes in which hundreds of police have been hurt and more than 1,300 people arrested.

Hollande, who faces an election a year from now plagued by dismal popularity ratings and high unemployment, says things are starting to get better but that the labour reform is vital to tackle joblessness, which has dipped for two months in a row but remains close to a rate of 10 percent.

The reform, which the CGT wants withdrawn, would make it easier for companies to lay off staff in difficult economic times. It would also allow firms to opt out of national labour protection rules if they strike in-house deals on pay and conditions with the consent of a majority of their staff.

French protesters attacked a police station and smashed bank windows on Thursday at rallies against the reform, while the CGT members sought to choke off fuel supplies.

Seventy-seven people were arrested during nationwide street demonstrations on Thursday in which more than 150,000 marched, according to the Interior Ministry.

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