News

The Latest: Police use tear gas, detain 16, during protests

LE HAVRE, France – The Latest on French labour dispute (all times local):

5:25 p.m.

Riot police have used tear gas during violent clashes in central Paris to disperse crowds who attacked shop facades during a protest against a divisive labour law reform. Police say they have made 16 arrests.

A police spokesman estimated that between 18,000 and 19,000 people are taking part in Thursday’s protest, which took a violent turn early afternoon.

Several masked protesters charged the windows of high street shops, smashing them amid banner-waving and shouts from other demonstrators demanding that the government scrap the bill that will make it easier to hire and fire workers and loosen the work week.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it “unacceptable to bring a country to standstill.”

—Thomas Adamson in Paris

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3:40 p.m.

Paris police have detained nine people and scuffled with masked protesters as several thousand marched through the French capital to demand that the government scrap a labour bill.

Demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans and sirens wailed in the background as the largely peaceful march advanced Thursday from the Bastille plaza through eastern Paris as part of nationwide labour actions. The protesters are angry at a reform that gives employers more flexibility to hire and fire and weakens the power of unions.

A police official said nine people were detained for property damage and police encountered some minor violence from protesters. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has denounced violence while speaking to the Senate.

—Angela Charlton in Paris.

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3 p.m.

The head of France’s oil industry lobby says strikes have frozen the country’s main oil terminals and most of its refineries — and the government is considering forcing workers to return to the job if the stoppages drag on.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Francis Duseux says Thursday that the French government has used four days’ worth of its strategic fuel reserves to compensate for oil shortages and has about 110 days’ worth left.

French unions have been striking and protesting against a government labour reform that makes it easier to hire and fire workers.

Duseux, of industry co-ordinating group UFIP, said workers in a one-day nationwide strike Thursday blocked activity at oil terminals in Le Havre on the English Channel and Fos-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean. He said only two of the country’s eight refineries are working normally.

Duseux says about 20 per cent of gas stations were suffering shortages Thursday, compared to 30 per cent earlier in the week. Police have been sent to force open fuel depots blocked by strikers.

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1:45 p.m.

A man with extremist links was briefly holed up inside a Paris home near a march expected to draw thousands of labour protesters.

Paris police say a doctor who arrived at the home to take the man to a psychiatric hospital sounded the alarm Thursday. French media said the man, whose identity has not been released, was believed to have a knife and a tear gas bomb before police overpowered him. Police and the man appear to be still are inside the home.

The standoff took place about a block from the Bastille, where a labour march was to start within an hour.

Fears of attacks by Islamic extremists have left France on edge.

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12:45 p.m.

Germany’s finance minister says protests against planned labour reforms in France are part of the country’s lively democratic tradition.

Union activists have disrupted fuel supplies to gas stations across France as part of nationwide strikes against a government labour bill.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Thursday that “France is great country and a strong democracy and France can live with such a dispute.”

He rejected the suggestion that France was an economic basket case, saying the dispute “doesn’t make France incapable of reform.”

Schaeuble contrasted popular opposition to the government with the suppression of all dissent in countries such as North Korea.

He says, “A certain dissatisfaction of voters with their respective rulers isn’t such a bad thing in principle.”

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12:40 p.m.

Thousands of dock workers have poured into the square in front of the city hall of the French port city of Le Havre, setting off smoke bombs throughout the area.

The action is part of a day of strikes and protests against a labour bill loosening worker protections. Tensions are particularly high in Le Havre, where workers are blocking one of the country’s main oil terminals.

The workers set off multicolour smoke bombs and threw some in fountains, kicking up plumes of water.

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11:30 a.m.

French drivers are rationing gasoline and hoping that strikes and protests against a government labour bill won’t last too long.

The government has intervened to supply gas stations that had run dry because of strikes, and supplies improved Thursday in some regions but not others. Unions are protesting a bill that makes it easier to fire workers.

In the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, driver Radwan Salleh, 33, said he would only buy 30 euros ($34) worth of gasoline. “We shouldn’t be too greedy.”

Fellow customer Matthieu Daviaud, 22, spent the evening and morning looking for gas or a station without punishingly long lines.

Gas station manager Bernard Ballaux has limited customers to 50 euros ($56) worth of diesel after a week of panic buying. Customers “fear that they won’t have gas anymore so they are irritated, tense.”

Prices have risen noticeably at gas pumps since the labour actions began disrupting supplies in the last week.

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9:50 a.m.

France’s junior minister for transport is insisting that strikes at oil refineries and nuclear plants won’t leave the country without gasoline or electricity.

On a day of nationwide action against a labour reform, Alain Vidalies said on Europe-1 radio Thursday “we don’t risk running out.”

He acknowledged “the situation remains tense,” with five of the country’s eight oil refineries on strike and one closed for maintenance.

After days of gasoline shortages, he says supplies to gas pumps improved slightly Thursday. He says: “We unblocked 11 (fuel) depots and will continue to unblock them.”

He played down any concerns that nuclear plant strikes would lead to blackouts, saying France could import electricity if needed.

Unions are angry at a labour bill loosening the work week and weakening unions.

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9:35 a.m.

With union activists disrupting fuel supplies, trains and nuclear plants, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls opened the door Thursday to possible changes in a labour bill that has sparked intensifying strikes and protests — but insisted the government will not abandon it.

The reform, aimed at boosting hiring by loosening protection for French workers, has escalated into the toughest challenge yet to President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government.

“There could be improvements and modifications” in the bill, Valls said on BFM television Thursday. He didn’t elaborate on what might be changed, and insisted that the “heart” of the bill should remain. Withdrawing the bill “is not possible,” he said.

Members of the CGT union immediately dismissed the gesture, saying they want the bill scrapped, not modified. “It’s inadmissible,” said Arnaud Pacot of the CGT in the Aube region of eastern France said on BFM from a nuclear plant being blocked by activists.

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8:00 a.m.

Union activists are burning tires and blocking a major bridge on the northern French coast on a day of nationwide strikes and protests over a labour reform.

Demonstrators gathered early Thursday morning at a central square in the venerable port town of Harfleur, setting off fireworks and air horns.

Activists were unapologetic about the disruption they planned.

“We have to hit where it hurts,” said union official Gilles Guyomard. “And where it hurts is the bosses’ wallets.”

The activists then went to the 2-kilometre-long Pont de Normandie, which bridges the Seine River at Le Havre, setting a pile of tires aflame and blocking toll booths.

Strikes and protests are being held around France on Thursday against a labour bill that extends the work week and makes layoffs easier.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.