French president Francois Hollande is not bending to pressure by labor unions trying to force the government to retract unpopular labor laws that were recently forced through parliament. Unions have gone on strike in order to shut down refineries, and have blocked fuel distribution with barricades and pickets in hopes that the economy will suffer enough to get the government to back off the reforms. In response, the government is now sending police in riot gear to break up the blockades.
The unions, as they intended, are certainly having an impact. Fuel shortages intensified as 30 percent of the country's 12,200 stations across the country are short of fuel and Total SA, France's largest oil company said that 346 out of it's 2,200 French gas stations are completely out of stock, while 395 lack some fuels according to Bloomberg.
Walkouts at Electricite de France SA cut more than 5,000 megawatts of combined output at a dozen nuclear reactors on Thursday (but have since returned to normal on Friday), and unions have gone on strike at all 8 French oil refineries, with Total reporting that five of its refineries have been completely halted.
In response to the actions, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the unions that continued disruptions would be dealt with "extremely firmly", and president Hollande has shown no signs of letting up on the new laws. Hollande warned protesters that he would not let them strangle the economy, perhaps taking comfort in the fact that consumer confidence surged to the highest level since 2007.
"I'm going to stick with this because I think it's a good reform. This is not a moment to endanger the French recovery."
Hollande further added "We can't accept that there are unions that dictate the law. As head of state, I want this reform. It fits with everything we have done for four years. I want us to go right to the end."
Indeed, it will be a bitter fight between Hollande and the unions to get this situation resolved. CTG union boss Philippe Martinez said the strikes will continue until the labor law is reformed.
"We'll see this through to the finish, to withdrawal of the labor law. This government which has turned its back on its promises and we are now seeing the consequences."
In another important development, oil tankers at the country's biggest oil port (the Fos-Lavera oil port in southern France) are still waiting to unload, and the backlog is growing. According to Reuters, 38 oil tankers are queued up waiting to unload at the port Friday, up from 12 the previous day. To make matters worse, members at the CIM oil terminal at the port of Le Havre which handles 40 percent of French crude imports voted to extend their strike until Monday.
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As Reuters reports, at least some relief has come since police started to break up barricades. In the Seine Maritime region North of Paris, local government official Nicole Klein said the number of petrol stations without fuel had fallen significantly and rationing orders have been lifted.
- *TOTAL: 659 FRENCH STATIONS OUT OF GAS AT 5PM VS 815 YDAY
In addition to the economic issues, there has been violence as well. As hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, hundreds of police have been hurt and more than 1,300 arrested according to Reuters. Most recently, protesters attacked a police station and smashed bank windows on Thursday during rallies against the reform. According to the Interior Ministry, seventy seven people were arrested during the rally in which more than 150,000 marched.
France is hosting the Euro 2016 soccer tournament in two weeks, and with already dwindling popularity, the last thing Hollande wants voters to draw upon during elections next year is such a huge event being a disaster because labor reforms were forced through parliament without a vote. It will be interesting to see which side blinks first in this standoff, but at the moment it appears that nobody is willing to budge.