French police using water cannon and tear gas break up a strike picket that was blocking access to a large oil refinery in the southern port area of Marseille. As Ivor Bennett reports, the government versus union showdown is about contested labour law reforms.
The usual hum of activity reduced to silence. Workers at all 8 of France's oil refineries now on strike. But if their banners were a declaration of war, it was their opponents who fired the first shot. (SOUNDBITE) (French) FRENCH PRIME MINISTER, MANUEL VALLS, SAYING: "Enough is enough, it's unbearable to see things this way and I'm saying this serenely and calmly but with determination which is why the CGT union will receive an extremely firm answer from the government." And this is what he means - riot police breaking up a strike picket near Marseille, with the help of water cannons and tear gas. Unions are aiming to cut output by 50 percent in their protest over labour reforms But with reports of one in five of petrol stations either rationing fuel or running out completely, public support could dry up too. (SOUNDBITE) (French) MOTORIST ON HIS WAY TO WORK, JEAN-PIERRE, SAYING : "They have causes to defend, that's a fact for sure but you can't affect users like this, it doesn't stop. That's France, a bloody mess." The government hopes the reforms will change that The precious 35 hour working week stays, but only as an average With firms given greater powers to hire - and fire. Business activity growing at its fastest rate since November suggests they're on the right track. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FXPRO, HEAD OF RESEARCH, SIMON SMITH, SAYING: "There's talk in the UK and the US of much more short-term work, the gig economies as they call it. where people have several careers through their life span. That's the way the world is changing rather than being in the same job or career for life." But workers' rights are fiercely protected in France. With unions planning strikes on railways and the Paris metro system, the battle is only just beginning.