Thousands of people demonstrated Thursday across France and strikes lowered production at the nation's nuclear power plants, as the government pledged to stay the course on a disputed set of labour reforms that have set off weeks of protests.

A handful of protesters scuffled and smashed shop windows with police who fired tear gas on one of the fiercest days of resistance to the labour reforms, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the legislation as "necessary for our country."

In Paris, between 18,000 and 100,000 protesters took to the streets. French media reported that 16 people had been arrested by late afternoon.

Workers at the country's 19 nuclear power plants also called for strikes, and 12 of those already lowered production through the night, union spokeswoman Marie-Claire Cailletaud told broadcaster BFM-TV, although blackouts were not immediately foreseen.

Nearly 10 per cent of the employees were on strike at France's electricity energy company EDF, a spokesman said. But he said that production to clients was "assured." EDF operates France's nuclear power plants.

Valls said there could be some changes to labour legislation, which is aimed at easing employment regulations on issues such as dismissal practices and negotiating rules. But he rejected the possibility of entirely withdrawing the reforms as national strikes drew out fuel blockages and disrupted traffic across France.

"I am always open when some aspect should be improved, but on the main lines of the text, particularly article 2, there is no question of touching it," said Valls on broadcaster BFM-TV. "We cannot cede to a desire to make the government fold by blocking the economy."

Article 2 of the legislation changes the labour code to give working hours agreements at company-level greater clout than those made by unions at industry-level.

French President Francois Hollande, in Japan for the G7 summit, was quoted by French media voicing his support for Valls' position.

Members of the umbrella CGT union, one of the seven unions that called for the nationwide strike, have called for a complete withdrawal of the legislation. Secretary General Philippe Martinez called for Hollande to live up to promises he made while a candidate.

The standoff between unions and the government represents one of the most significant challenges during Hollande's term, pitting strikers against his Socialist party just one year before France's next presidential election.

Hollande's government is trying to reassure a jittery public, which has fuelled up their cars at higher rates than normal, often forming long queues at petrol stations. Some 20 per cent of stations face shortages due to refinery workers strikes.

Deliveries from fuel depots and use of the country's strategic reserves partially eased the shortages on Thursday.

Along with the strikes at refineries and nuclear power plants, long-distance and regional trains were also affected by the demonstrations. Fifteen per cent of flights were cancelled at Orly airport due to a strike called by the air traffic controllers union.

Earlier this week, French rail operator SNCF said that rates of participation in strikes has been steadily declining since a high of 35.5 per cent on March 9. On Wednesday, the participation rate was 10.6 per cent, SNCF said.

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