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Protests Escalate In France As Labor Groups Face Off With Government

People demonstrate in Le Havre, in northwestern France, on Thursday. A series of protests and strikes have been held over the past few months, to oppose a government plan to change France's labor law.

A third of France's gas stations have no fuel to offer drivers. The nation's electricity supply has dropped — though not enough to cause worry, officials say.

Smoke bombs are being tossed on the streets of Le Havre.

But you might have trouble reading about the upheaval over coffee and croissants. There were no newspapers in Paris today, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

It's all part of the ongoing dispute between labor groups and the French government over President Francois Hollande's plan to overhaul the country's labor policies.

One of the country's largest unions, the General Confederation of Labor (or CGT), is fiercely opposed to the proposed changes.

At the port city of Le Havre, The Associated Press reports, thousands of dock workers headed to City Hall instead of their work sites. They threw colorful smoke bombs around the square and into fountains.

Union members have been striking at oil refineries and blockading oil imports for days now, leading to the gasoline shortages.

On Thursday, employees at more than a dozen nuclear power plants walked off the job — hence the drop in power supply. Authorities promise there won't be blackouts across the country, saying they will import electricity if needed, the AP says.

And the unions blocked the printing and delivery of newspapers Thursday morning.

Railroad workers have also been on strike, though Eleanor reports train travel in France hasn't been interrupted this week.

This is the eighth organized day of action, in protests that have now stretched on for months.

NPR's Chris Arnold described the underlying tension for the Two-Way last week:

"Here's the big issue — French leaders say they have to make their country's economy more flexible, competitive and productive. To do that, they say they need to end some long-standing worker protections. Legislation that's moving forward would make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers. Truck drivers would also see their overtime pay cut. ...

"The work-rule overhaul bill has cleared the lower house of Parliament and will likely be cleared by the Senate in June."

Now there are hints that the government might back down, at least a little.

"After saying the government would never back down, Prime Minister Manuel Valls hinted in a radio interview that it could amend certain contested articles in the labor bill," Eleanor told our Newscast unit Thursday.

But Valls said a central and controversial element of the reforms is nonnegotiable, Bloomberg reports. That's a provision that would shift union negotiations from the national level to the company level, allowing individual businesses more control over their union contracts.

The labor movement isn't unanimously opposed to the reforms. Some unions actually negotiated with the government over the proposal and feel they were successful, the AP reports.

But, Eleanor reported Wednesday, the hard-liners at the CGT believe the proposals, including a shift to make it easier to fire workers, "will make their lives more precarious and erode years of labor progress."

Last week, she noted that most of the country — 60 percent, according to polls — sides with the CGT on the issue of labor reform.

"Every time the president wants to overhaul labor codes or, you know, increase the retirement age, people just pour out into the streets," Eleanor said.

And the inconvenience of the strikes?

"They're kind of used to this, I have to say," Eleanor said. "So they find ways to get around it."

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