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Strikes at French nuclear plants over labor reforms

Nuclear power plant workers have joined rolling energy sector strikes against labor law reforms in France. The country has mobilized strategic oil stocks to counter ongoing fuel supply and transport disruptions.

Strikes and protests were being held across France on Thursday as activists continued to voice their dismay at planned reforms to the country's labor laws.

"We have to hit where it hurts," said union official Gilles Guyomard from the site of an early morning demonstration during which activists burned tires and blocked a bridge at Le Havre, adding "And where it hurts is the bosses' wallets."

French grid operator RTE's website showed nuclear power capacity was cut by about 4 gigawatts (GW) early Thursday as nuclear plant workers from the CGT union joined the

rolling nationwide strikes

which have targeted the energy sector. That's about 6 percent of total production capacity. Late Wednesday, the union said its members at 16 of the 19 nuclear power stations in France had voted to join the strike. The CGT has also called for rallies in major cities and work stoppages were scheduled at many ports.

Dock workers in the port of Le Havre have set off smoke bombs throughout the square in front of the city hall.

Riot police prepare to intervene to disperse refinery worker holding a blockade of the oil depot of Douchy-Les-Mines to protest against the government's proposed labour reforms, on May 25, 2016

Police have intervened to stop protesters blocking key fuel depots

Refinery and depot blockades, also led by the union, have led to shortages at some fuel pumps. A train strike which was due to continue Thursday has added to the transportation difficulties, although state railway company SNCF said the impact on train connections was not as much as during strikes last week.

The leader of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, has vowed the action would continue until the labor law, which was pushed through by the government, was withdrawn. But Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers Wednesday that would not happen.

"The CGT does not rule this country," Valls said.

On Thursday the head of the CFDT union, which is backing the government's reforms, called for a truce.

"The political and industrial relations climate has turned hysterical ... let's calm things down," he told France Info.

Dipping into reserves

Some companies said the shortages caused by the fuel blockades were starting to impact their businesses.

"We filled up at the end of last week and at the beginning of this week but our drivers need to fill up again and it's not possible," Pascal Barre, who runs a logistics firm in Poincy, said.

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France: Sleepless in Paris

To counter the strikes, the French government on Wednesday dipped into its strategic fuel reserves for the first time in six years. France's reserves are enough to last more than three months. Authorities also stepped up

their efforts to break blockades.

There's concern the ongoing disruption could impact the Euro 2016 football tournament, hosted by France, which is due to begin in a fortnight.

Unemployment rate

The protests center on labor market reforms

aimed at reducing unemployment

, which hovers around 10 percent. The law change has made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and relaxes some rules around the working week and overtime pay. Unions argue the changes erode workers' rights.

A monthly Labor Ministry report released Wednesday showed France's unemployment rate had dipped by 0.6 percent in April - accounting for nearly 20,000 people - the first time it has done so for two consecutive months during the past five years.

Germany's finance minister has backed French President Francois Hollande, saying he was "right" to champion the reforms and that the months of protests against them were part of the country's democratic tradition.

"France is obviously not incapable of reform," Wolfgang Schäuble told journalists Thursday, adding that "France can live with such a dispute."

se/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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