By Bate Felix
PARIS (Reuters) - French riot police removed picketers and barricades blocking access to a large fuel distribution depot as President Francois Hollande warned anti-reform protesters on Friday he would not let them strangle the economy.
The police operation to free up a fuel depot near the Donges oil refinery in western France followed similar swoops at other depots this week to ease petrol shortages caused by picketers fighting planned labor law reforms.
Although concerns were mounting about potential disruption to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament which begins in two weeks time, evidence elsewhere in the energy sector indicated a slightly less tight supply compared with the previous day. Some 741 of oil major Total's 2,200 filling stations were out of fuel compared with 784 a day earlier.
In the Seine Maritime region north of Paris, local government prefect Nicole Klein said the number of petrol stations without fuel had fallen significantly and lifted rationing orders.
Nevertheless at the Fos-Lavera oil port in southern France, the country's biggest, about 38 oil tankers were queued up waiting to unload, up from 12 the previous day, a port authority spokeswoman said.
Separately, the hardline CGT union said its members at the CIM oil terminal at the port of Le Havre, which handles 40 percent of French crude oil imports, had voted to extend their strike until Monday.
Speaking in Japan after a summit with other world leaders, Hollande said France's economy was starting to pick up and should not be derailed by opponents of a reform designed to make hiring and firing easier to boost employment.
"I will stay the course because this is a good reform and we must go all the way to adoption," the Socialist leader said. "This is not the time to put the French economy in difficulty."
Hollande's appeal was directed above all at the CGT union, which is leading street protests, public transport strikes and fuel supply pickets that also risk disrupting the European soccer tournament France is hosting next month.
Some evidence to back up Hollande's remarks on the economy emerged on Friday in consumer confidence data collected in May.
The official consumer confidence index surged past even the highest estimate to reach the highest level since October 2007, before the global financial crisis broke.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months for protests marred by violence on the fringes in which hundreds of police have been hurt and more than 1,300 people arrested.
Hollande, who faces an election a year from now plagued by dismal popularity ratings and high unemployment, says the labor reform is vital to tackle joblessness, which has dipped for two months in a row but remains close to a rate of 10 percent.
The reform, which the CGT wants withdrawn, would make it easier for companies to lay off staff in difficult economic times. It would also allow firms to opt out of national labor protection rules if they strike in-house deals on pay and conditions with the consent of a majority of their staff.
French protesters attacked a police station and smashed bank windows on Thursday at rallies against the reform, while the CGT members sought to choke off fuel supplies.
Seventy-seven people were arrested during nationwide street demonstrations on Thursday in which more than 150,000 marched, according to the Interior Ministry.
(Reporting by Brian Love and Simon Carraud in Paris and Thomas Wilson in Japan; Editing by Andrew Callus and Janet Lawrence)