After fuel blockade, French nuclear plant workers to strike over labour reform
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Workers at 16 of France's 19 nuclear plants voted Wednesday to strike as part of widespread protests over labour reforms as a stand-off between the government and unions escalated.
In the past week French workers led by the CGT have blocked oil refineries around the country in protest at the planned reforms aimed at making it easier for firms to hire and fire, which has led to fuel shortages in large parts of the country and long queues of cars at near-empty petrol stations.
CGT energy and mining federation spokeswoman Marie-Claire Cailletaud said the strike action at nuclear plants, set to start Wednesday evening at 20.00 Paris time (1800 GMT), will reduce power output, but the reactors will not stop running.
"One cannot just turn off a nuclear plant, it is not like a thermal or hydro plant," she said.
Staff in at least four fossil fuel-fired plants have also voted to strike, she added.
Faced with shortages at dozens of petrol stations, France has also mobilised its emergency motor fuel stocks for the first time since 2010, but officials said there was no underlying shortage, and no risk of one.
Ministers went on radio morning shows to say the government would stand firm, while CGT chief Philippe Martinez told RTL radio that his union, one of the most powerful in France, would press on with its strikes.
At stake is a labour reform that the government says is crucial to fight rampant unemployment stuck at over 10 percent of the workforce and which aims to make hiring and firing easier. The CGT says the reforms will unravel protective labour regulation, even though other unions back it.
So far the strikes have affected oil depots and refineries, triggering shortages, and train and Metro strikes have been announced too.
The nuclear plant strike is a further escalation of a conflict that also threatens to affect the Euro 2016 football championship, which starts on June 10 in France.
The government has accused the CGT of taking the country hostage.
“A small minority is trying to radicalise things,” Junior minister Jean-Marie Le Guen told RTL radio. “We will unblock the situation,” he said, adding that a union “cannot govern the country”.
Police used water cannons in the early hours of Wednesday to dislodge some 80 unionists who were blocking a fuel depot at Douchy-les-Mines, in northern France, union and police officials said. Other depots were unblocked by police on Tuesday.
Undeterred, CGT chief Philippe Martinez told France Inter: “We will carry on.”
France produces about three quarters of its electricity in 19 nuclear plants run by state-controlled utility EDF, but strikes do not cause blackouts because of legal limits on strike action in the nuclear industry and France's ability to import power from neighbouring countries.
During a strike in January EDF imported up to six gigawatts of power – equivalent to about six nuclear plants – from neighbouring countries.
With regard to fuel shortages at filling stations, spokeswoman for oil lobby group UFIP Catherine Enck said “a small quantity” of the government’s emergency stock had been drawn.
According to one industry expert, the aim was to ease supply constraints caused by the disruption and panic buying, but the stock itself was constantly being replenished through imports.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)