French police force open fuel depot amid protests, shortages

PARIS – French police used water cannons on Tuesday to disperse projectile-throwing protesters blocking a key fuel depot on the Mediterranean, as gasoline shortages spread around the country amid increasingly tense labour actions.

Strikes have spread to all eight of France’s refineries, and one in five gas stations are now dry or running low.

A two-month protest movement against a bill weakening France’s famed worker protections reached a new level this week as fuel industry workers joined in — and it’s now posing the biggest challenge yet to President Francois Hollande and his government.

Other forms of transport may provide little relief: unions plan strikes on the SNCF rail system Wednesday and the Paris subways and buses Thursday, though it’s unclear how many workers will take part. Air traffic controllers are threatening strikes June 3-5 — just as tourist season kicks off, and just days before the start of the monthlong European soccer championship, being hosted in cities around France.

The CGT union, whose hard-left flank is driving the labour movement, reacted angrily to the overnight police advance on the depot at Fos-sur-Mer. Police descended in the darkness, pushing out picketing workers gathered around burning tires. Several police officers were injured.

After the blockade was cleared, fuel trucks that had been stuck for days outside the depot resumed traffic, but faced long delays loading up.

“Other sites will be liberated,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Europe-1 radio. “I’m very determined.”

The striking workers are determined too, pledging to keep fighting until the government withdraws its disputed labour reforms. The government is trying to rejigger rules governing the work week, overtime pay and other labour protections, something opponents say will weaken protections without promoting job creation.

“We think there are more and more businesses ready for open-ended strikes,” said CGT member Maxime Picard. He warned the government it faces “an infernal spiral” of tougher strikes. “They don’t know what to do.”

Twenty per cent of gas stations around the country faced shortages as of Tuesday, and unions threatened to stop production at all of France’s eight refineries.

Alain Vidalies, junior minister for transport, attributed the gas station troubles to panic, telling Parliament that consumers in some areas bought five times as much gas in the last three days as usual.

Consumers, meanwhile, are throwing themselves at the pumps in anticipation of further problems. France’s BFMTV even broadcast images of French drivers crossing the border to fill up in Belgium.


Margaid Quiocand reported from Fos-sur-Mer. Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.