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French police break up refinery blockade in anti-reform showdown (Updated)

French gendarmes take position after striking workers blockaded roads near the oil refinery at Fos-sur-Mer

French riot police broke up a strike picket at an oil refinery near the southern port of Marseille on Tuesday in a government versus union showdown over unpopular labour law reforms.

Police fired tear gas and water canon at protesters outside Exxon Mobil Corp’s Fos-Sur-Mer refinery and terminal after scores of fuel stations ran dry and the government warned the CGT its industrial action would not be tolerated.

“Enough is enough,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The pre-dawn operation marked an escalation in a standoff between President Francois Hollande and opponents of the planned labour reforms, which have triggered weeks of street protests and may paralyse the country with rolling strikes at refineries, ports and railways planned.

The CGT says the reform will unravel France’s protective labour regulations, allowing firms to lay off staff more easily in hard economic times and by providing further exemptions from national rules on pay and working conditions.

“We’ll see this through to the finish, to withdrawal of the labour law,” said CGT leader boss Philippe Martinez. “This is a government which has turned its back on its promises and we are now seeing the consequences.”

Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said one in every five of the country’s 12,500 petrol stations were either completely dry or out of one type of fuel, a week after oil workers first went on strike.

French gendarmes remove branches, wood pallettes and tyres after striking workers blocked roads near the oil refinery at Fos-sur-Mer
French gendarmes remove branches, wood pallettes and tyres after striking workers blocked roads near the oil refinery at Fos-sur-Mer

The long lines of motorists panic-buying gasoline amid fuel rationing in parts of France will compound the troubles Hollande, France’s most unpopular leader in recent memory who is striving to convince voters that “things are getting better” a year ahead of presidential elections.

Hollande says the labour reform is critical to create new jobs and has vowed he will only run for a second term if he can bring the jobless rate down from around 10 percent.

Exxon Mobil said production at its two French refineries was at normal levels after a limited number of employees joined the strike action. However, damage to the road and terminal tracks at Fos-Sur-Mer meant trucks could not load.

Total S.A. said some of its refineries were at standstill, while others were operating at reduced capacity. The oil major added that of its 2,200 petrol stations, more than 100 had run dry and more than 500 others were running low.

Emergency stocks are sufficient to keep the country’s fuel stations in operation for up to two months, according to some experts, if the government chose to tap into those supplies. But Valls had already warned that the pickets would not be tolerated for long.

The labour reform dispute has shone a spotlight on the battle for influence within the CGT, once France’s biggest trade union group but an organisation whose power has shown signs of waning.

The CGT has also called weekly strikes on the SNCF state railways and an open-ended strike on the Paris underground and suburban commuter train networks from June 2, a week before the Euro 2016 soccer tournament opens.

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