Alabama-Florida St, Florida-Michigan highlight SEC schedule

By The Associated Press

Here are a few things to watch during the opening week of the Southeastern Conference football season:

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 17 Florida vs. No. 11 Michigan. A lot of eyes will be on the Alabama-Florida State game — and rightfully so — but a better barometer of the SEC’s overall strength this season could come when the Gators face the Wolverines in Arlington, Texas. The SEC has struggled to establish a second-tier of elite teams behind the Crimson Tide over the past few seasons. This year’s preseason AP Top 25 has just one SEC team (No. 1 Alabama) in the top 10. If Florida can beat Michigan, it would go a long way toward pushing the Gators back into the national conversation.

MATCHUP OF THE WEEK: Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Florida State cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Assuming these guys line up against each other, this shapes up as the best individual matchup in a game featuring plenty of future NFL talent. McFadden was a first-team pick and Ridley was a second-team selection on the AP preseason All-America team . Through his first two college seasons, the 6-foot-1 Ridley already has 161 catches for 1,814 yards and 14 touchdowns. McFadden, who is 6-2, picked off eight passes last season to tie for the NCAA lead. Both Ridley and McFadden come from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We have a little bit of history,” McFadden said. “We played against each other in 7-on-7s all the time. That’s a big thing in high school. We’re very familiar with each other, so it is going to be a great matchup.”

NUMBERS GAME: No. 12 Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway averaged 122.4 yards rushing per game last season, the most of any returning Football Bowl Subdivision player. … Florida has won its last 27 season openers, the longest active streak of any FBS team. … The SEC East went 0-3 last season against Georgia Tech, which opens the 2017 campaign against No. 25 Tennessee. Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky all lost to the Yellow Jackets last season. … Georgia’s Nick Chubb has 3,424 career yards rushing to rank fifth among active FBS players. He trails Oregon’s Royce Freeman (4,146), Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (4,129), Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin (3,639) and New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III (3,618). … Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald is one of three returning quarterbacks who had both 1,000 yards rushing and 2,000 yards passing last season. The others were Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers.

UPSET WATCH: Ole Miss is a 23½-point favorite over South Alabama even after a tumultuous offseason that included losing coach Hugh Freeze in July. South Alabama has had recent success against the SEC, beating Mississippi State in the season opener last season. … Vanderbilt is a 3 ½ point favorite over Middle Tennessee even though the Commodores are on the road and have lost their past five season openers.

IMPACT PERFORMERS: Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks: This redshirt freshman won Florida’s preseason quarterback competition and now has quite a challenge in front of him. The Gators have suspended 10 players for their game with Michigan. The list of suspended Gators includes their leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and top receiver (Antonio Callaway) from last season. Franks was named the starter for the Michigan game Wednesday after beating out junior Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.

___

AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and David Brandt in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this story.

___

More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

Federer seeks 80th US Open victory, Nadal also in action

By BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Roger Federer looks for his 80th U.S. Open victory, while Rafael Nadal also is in second-round action.

A number of players will be on the court for a second straight day Thursday after almost all of Tuesday’s action was postponed by rain.

Federer and Nadal did get their matches in that day under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, so they both had Wednesday off. Federer used his time to practice at Central Park .

The five-time U.S. Open champion faces Mikhail Youzhny of Russia in an afternoon match. An 80th victory would break a tie with Andre Agassi and leave Federer behind only Jimmy Connors’ 98 victories at the U.S. Open.

Youzhny was a semifinalist at Flushing Meadows in 2006 and 2010, but he’s 0-16 lifetime against Federer.

The top-ranked Nadal faces Japan’s Taro Daniel in the second night match at Ashe.

Last year’s backup QB says he ready to be Clemson’s starter

By PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Kelly Bryant believes he is prepared to Clemson’s starting quarterback and is ready to keep the Tigers playing at a national championship-level.

Tiger fans will be watching intently for any slip ups by 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior.

Bryant has sat on the bench the past two seasons studying former star Deshaun Watson, listening closely to what Watson had to say and mirroring his actions at practice. Now, Bryant is eager to make his own mark, staring in the Tigers season-opener against Kent State on Saturday.

Watson “did a lot of things, a lot of great things here,” Bryant said this week. “That’s the standard that’s been set, not only by Deshaun but by the past few guys that have come through here.”

Bryant understands that Clemson supporters will be breaking down nearly every decision he makes to see how if can duplicate Watson’s success. It will be challenge. Watson was the Houston Texans’ first-round draft pick and was 29-2 his last 31 starts with the Tigers — including a national title win over No. 1 Alabama last January.

Bryant’s breaking things down, too — one snap at a time.

“That’s the biggest thing that the coaches have emphasized in the quarterback room, just do our job and everything will take care of itself,” he said. “So it’s not pressure. The pressure comes when you start thinking too much and you’re trying to put too much pressure on yourself.”

Bryant arrived at Clemson from Calhoun Falls, about an hour’s drive from campus, and was among the top prep quarterbacks in South Carolina when he signed with Tigers. He accounted for 4,299 yards and 55 touchdowns his senior season at Wren High. With a strong, accurate arm and running back moves, some fans suggested in 2015 that Bryant should start over Watson, who was coming off an injury-filled freshman season.

But Bryant accepted early on that his time would come after Watson left. Bryant saw little action behind Watson and upperclassman Nick Schuessler his first two seasons, doing what he could to stay prepared if called on.

Once the title celebration died down on campus, Bryant began transforming himself into Watson’s successor while giddy Tiger fans gushed about the five-star rated, prototype passer coming in. Freshman Hunter Johnson from Indiana was dubbed by many the natural, high-profile successor to the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.

But they didn’t get to make the decision.

And it was Bryant who outfought Johnson and Zerrick Cooper to win the starting job.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants Bryant to do what he’s seen him do on the practice field in preparing for the season.

“If he’ll do 70 percent of what I’ve seen on the practice field, he’s going to be a really good player,” Swinney said. “We just haven’t had the chance to see him play.”

Interim Kent State coach Don Treadwell said his team doesn’t get a break facing Bryant over Watson because Clemson lands some of the most skilled players in the game.

“They just simply retool,” Treadwell said.

Defensive end Christian Wilkins asked Clemson fans to give the same love they did Watson to Bryant come Saturday.

“I’m really excited and have all the faith in Kelly to get the job done,” Wilkins said.

Bryant is grateful for all the support from teammates and coaches. He knows he’ll have to earn the adulation from the fans through his play.

“The game is all about performance so as the starting quarterback going out there, you’re going to have to perform every day, whether it’s in a game or in practice,” Bryant said.

Bryant recently caught with Watson on the phone. The two made small-talk, two old teammates chatting about various topics after a few months apart. Bryant hopes the lessons he learned from Watson will last much longer than the call.

“All eyes are going to be on me and the offense,” Bryant said. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what kind of player I am.”

___

More AP college football: collegefootball.ap.org and twitter.com/AP_Top25

Appeal hearing for Cowboys’ Elliott over after 2-plus days

NEW YORK (AP) — Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott’s hearing on the appeal of his six-game suspension over a domestic violence case ended Thursday after 2 1/2 days.

According to the labor agreement, Arbitrator Harold Henderson must rule on the NFL’s punishment “as soon as practicable.” The Cowboys must cut their roster to 53 players by Saturday, and putting Elliott on the restricted list would give them an extra spot.

The NFL’s 2016 rushing leader was suspended after the league concluded that he used physical force last summer in Ohio against his girlfriend at the time. Prosecutors didn’t pursue the case, citing conflicting evidence. Elliott has denied the allegations.

The personal conduct policy was amended three years ago to stiffen penalties in domestic cases. The change came after NFL was sharply criticized for its handling of a case involving former Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

___

More AP NFL: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Mattis begins sending additional troops to Afghanistan

By ROBERT BURNS, AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon has begun sending additional troops to Afghanistan to carry out President Donald Trump’s new war strategy, which will stick to his predecessor’s approach of supporting the Afghans’ fight against the Taliban rather than doing the fighting for them, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday.

“Yes, I’ve signed orders, but it’s not complete,” Mattis told reporters in an impromptu news conference at the Pentagon.

He would not say how many additional troops are deploying or what their exact roles will be. Trump’s decision to deepen the American military commitment was taken after months of debate within the administration over whether the risk was worth the potential reward of eventually stabilizing Afghanistan to the point where its own forces can prevent a Taliban takeover and contain other militant threats.

Mattis stressed that Afghan forces will remain in the lead, with the extra U.S. troops taking a support role.

“By and large this is to enable the Afghan forces to fight more effectively,” Mattis said. “It’s more advisers, more enablers,” such as “fire support” teams, which he declined to specify but could be artillery units. He said the additional U.S. troops have not yet arrived in Afghanistan.

“I just signed the orders,” Mattis said. “It’s going to take a couple of days.”

Other officials have said the U.S. will send about 3,900 additional troops. In a speech announcing his new strategy Aug. 21, Trump did not mention that an increase in U.S. troop levels was part of his new strategy. He said “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables,” will guide the strategy, and suggested troop levels will be kept largely secret.

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said.

On Wednesday, at Mattis’ instruction, Pentagon officials said that about 11,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, acknowledging publicly for the first time that the 8,400 figure that officials had used for many months was inaccurate. Mattis said he wanted to publicly clarify the current troop total before discussing how many more would be sent.

Officials have said the U.S. plans to send as many as 3,900 more troops — which would bring the number of publicly recognized troops in Afghanistan to about 15,000.

Mattis said he and other senior administration officials are scheduled to brief members of Congress on the latest deployments and the new war strategy next Wednesday. Critics have questioned whether sending a few thousand more troops will make a decisive difference in a war that began when U.S. forces invaded to topple the Taliban regime in October 2001. The Afghan government only controls half of the country and is beset by endemic corruption and infighting.

In the nearly 16 years since the United States went to war in Afghanistan, the number of American troops initially grew in spurts, as U.S. leaders wavered about how much focus to put on the war. President Barack Obama came into office in 2009 saying he would give the war there the attention it required, and the number of American troops on the ground spiraled by mid-2010 to 100,000.

Before becoming a presidential candidate, Trump had argued for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling the war a massive waste of U.S. “blood and treasure” and declaring on Twitter, “Let’s get out!” In his Aug. 21 announcement, just seven months into his presidency, he said that though his “original instinct was to pull out,” he’d since determined that approach could create a vacuum that terrorists including al-Qaida and the Islamic State would “instantly fill.”

In tit for tat, US tells Russia to close post in San Fran

By JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an escalating tit-for-tat, the United States forced Russia on Thursday to shutter its consulate in San Francisco and scale back its diplomatic presence in Washington and New York, as relations between the two former Cold War foes continued to unravel.

The Trump administration said the move constituted its response to the Kremlin’s “unwarranted and detrimental” decision to force the U.S. to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia. The U.S. gave Russia a mere 48 hours to close its San Francisco consulate, along with smaller Russian posts in Washington and New York.

“The United States is prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Still, she said the U.S. hoped both countries could now move toward “improved relations” and “increased cooperation.”

Russia said it regretted the order and pointed the finger at the U.S. for starting the “escalation of tensions” between the nuclear-armed powers. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Kremlin would return the volley by retaliating for the U.S. retaliation. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow was studying the decision to determine its response.

U.S. ties to Russia have soured in recent years over deep disagreements about Ukraine, Syria and Russian hacking. To the surprise of those who anticipated that President Donald Trump’s election would reverse that trend, the feud has only worsened this year, even as investigators continue probing whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow’s efforts to help him get elected.

In addition to its consulate, the Russians by Saturday must close an official residence in San Francisco. Though Russia can keep its New York consulate and Washington embassy, Russian trade missions housed in satellite offices in those two cities must shut down, said a senior Trump administration official. The official briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. isn’t expelling any Russian officials, so those who work at the shuttered offices can be reassigned elsewhere in the U.S., the official said. One of the buildings is believed to be leased, but Russia will maintain ownership over the others, the official said, adding that it would be up to Moscow to determine whether to sell them or otherwise dispose of them.

The forced closures were the latest in an intensifying exchange of diplomatic broadsides with origins in Washington’s opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In December, former President Barack Obama kicked out dozens of Russian officials in the U.S., shuttered Russian recreational compounds in New York and Maryland, and sanctioned Russian individuals and entities. Russian President Vladimir Putin held off on any retaliation, and the next month, Trump took office, having campaigned on hopes of improving U.S.-Russia ties.

But earlier this month, Trump begrudgingly signed into law stepped-up sanctions on Russia that Congress passed in an attempt to prevent Trump from easing up on Moscow. The Kremlin quickly retaliated, announcing the U.S. must cut its own embassy and consulate staff down to 455.

Although Russia said 755 personnel would have to go to reach that number, Washington never confirmed how many diplomatic staff it had in Russia at the time. As of Thursday, the U.S. has complied with the order to reduce to 455, officials said.

That reduction also led the U.S. to temporarily suspend processing non-immigrant visas for Russians seeking to visit the U.S. Visa processing will resume soon, but at a “much-reduced rate” owing to fewer staff to process the visas, the official said. Earlier, the U.S. had said it would start processing visas only at the embassy in Moscow, meaning Russians could no longer apply for visas at the U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

Despite the exchange of penalties, there have been narrow signs of cooperation between the two countries that has transcended the worsening ties. In July, Trump and Putin signed off on a three-way deal with Jordan for a cease-fire in southwest Syria that the U.S. says has largely held intact.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed the decision to shutter the Russian posts to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a Thursday phone call in which he also told Lavrov that the U.S. had complied with Moscow’s order to cut its diplomatic staff. Lower-level officials also spoke to their Russian counterparts in the U.S. about the details of the new U.S. order.

Given the reciprocal nature of the escalating tensions over the past year, it was likely the Kremlin would feel compelled to respond by taking further action against Washington. Nevertheless, the United States argued that the score has been evened.

U.S. officials pointed out that Russia, when it ordered the cut in U.S. diplomats, had argued it was merely bringing the size of the two countries’ diplomatic presences into “parity.” Both countries now maintain three consulates on each other’s territory and ostensibly have similar numbers of diplomats posted, though such numbers are difficult to independently verify.

“The United States hopes that, having moved toward the Russian Federation’s desire for parity, we can avoid further retaliatory actions by both sides,” Nauert said.

___

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

___

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

Iraq says Tal Afar ‘fully liberated’ from Islamic State

By SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — The northern town of Tal Afar has been “fully liberated” from the Islamic State group, Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday, further shrinking the territory controlled by the extremists who overran nearly a third of the country three years ago.

The militants have suffered a series of major defeats in recent months, including the loss of Mosul, the second-largest city, in July.

Iraqi troops “eliminated and smashed” the militant group in al-Ayadia district, northwest of Tal Afar, where they had fled last week, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement.

“To Daesh criminals we say: Wherever you are we will come to liberate and you have to choose only death or surrender,” al-Abadi added, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

With the fall of Tal Afar, all of Ninevah province is “in the hands of our brave troops,” he said. The ethnically mixed province was the first to fall to the Islamic State when its militants swept across large parts of Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014.

The group still controls a large area of eastern Syria, along the border with Iraq, as well as parts of Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate, where it is battling U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces.

Iraqi officials often declare areas liberated before the fighting has completely ended, and the militants have been known to carry out surprise counterattacks. The Tal Afar operation began nearly two weeks ago.

The announcement on Tal Afar came a day after Jordan and Iraq reopened their only border crossing after a two-year closure. They were able to reopen it after Iraqi forces drove IS from most of the vast Anbar province in western Iraq.

Al-Abadi vowed to retake all areas still under IS control. In Iraq, they are now largely confined to the northern town of Hawija and a handful of others — Qaim, Rawa and Ana — near the Syrian border.

In a separate statement, the Iraqi military confirmed that their next target is Hawija, but did not elaborate.

Iraqi state TV interrupted its regular programs and played national songs, showing a live feed from Tal Afar, where soldiers danced and celebrated the victory.

In his announcement, al-Abadi alluded to an agreement brokered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group that allowed hundreds of IS fighters to evacuate the Lebanon-Syria border and head toward IS-held territory in eastern Syria, near Iraq.

Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition criticized the deal, saying the extremists should be killed on the battlefield and not be allowed to regroup elsewhere.

Al-Abadi said Iraqi forces “didn’t allow them to flee” al-Ayadia.

“That’s our firm stance against those criminals,” he added.

The coalition praised what it called a “stunning victory,” but it warned that “dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts.” ISIS is another acronym for the militant group.

Neighboring Turkey, which has long ties to Tal Afar’s ethnic Turkmen community, welcomed the liberation of the town. But the Foreign Ministry emphasized in its statement that Iraqi security forces and residents should assume control and not “militant groups acting on their own agendas.”

It appeared to be referring to state-sanctioned, mostly Shiite Arab militias who took part in the operation to drive out IS, a Sunni extremist group. Turkey has previously warned against any attempt to upset the demographic balance in northern Iraq.

Islamic State defenses in Tal Afar collapsed much more quickly than expected. After previous setbacks, however, the group has brutally underscored its resilience by launching surprise offensives to retake territory or by inspiring or orchestrating attacks in other parts of the world.

“They have been suffering massive losses for months now and seem to be disintegrating in terms of strength and the ability to strike back,” said Natasha Underhill, a terrorism expert at Nottingham Trent University.

She warned that “tackling the power of its ideology is far more significant, as it is this which inspires other groups or those home-grown groups like we have seen emerge across Europe.”

___

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Polish police suspect old Jewish cemetery was damaged

By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA, Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police in western Poland are investigating whether a historic Jewish cemetery was damaged after workers uncovered human remains and tombstones at a construction site.

Anna Dygas, from the police department in the village of Maszewo, told The Associated Press on Thursday that an investigation has been opened into possible damage to a burial site. Experts were analyzing the human remains and the tombstones.

The private owner of the site notified police Tuesday after human bones surfaced during work to prepare the site for a construction job.

The head of Poland’s Jewish community, Leslaw Piszewski, said he was “devastated” by the report. He said the Jewish community will take steps to have a proper reburial of the remains at the same site.

So far, only about 500 out of some 1,600 Jewish cemeteries have been returned to the Jewish community in Poland, including some synagogues and prayer houses, he said. The properties, most of whose owners and users perished in the Holocaust, were seized by the communist state after World War II. They are now being gradually returned.

An amateur historian, Wojciech Janda, said the site is a 200-year-old small Jewish cemetery. Last year a history association he belongs to included the neglected, overgrown cemetery on a list of historical monuments.

Ewa Stanecka, a local official in charge of historic sites, said the owner never sought permission for the construction.

According to Janda, the first written mention of Maszewo’s Jewish cemetery dates back to 1820, when the area was part of Prussia and then Germany. The last burial was in 1933. The Germans destroyed the cemetery, breaking its walls and the tombstones, amid rising anti-Semitism in 1938.

French labor law changes will make it easier to hire, fire

By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — President Emmanuel Macron’s most daring undertaking, reforming France’s nearly sacrosanct labor laws, got cheers and jeers as it went public Thursday. It trims union powers, adds a voice for small businesses and creates easier ways to hire and fire workers.

The measures meant to foster growth, reduce the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment and revolutionize the way the French work will get a hearing in the streets, with two protests planned for September.

Overhauling France’s complex labor laws, which authorities say have proved a hindrance to investors and employers, is part of a larger program by Macron to stimulate France’s sluggish economy. The high-stakes move comes just as the new 39-year-old president’s popularity is sinking. But plans to make the labor market more flexible were at the heart of his election campaign.

Opponents have feared changes will weaken France’s hard-won worker protections that have become globally synonymous with the envied French lifestyle. Left-wing opponents fear the changes hand too much power to profit-focused bosses.

“Nobody today can seriously say that our … labor law favors recruitment,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in unveiling the five measures. “The labor law as it is in our country is often perceived as an obstacle to recruiting, an obstacle to investment.”

Still, Philippe conceded the government was treading on risky territory politically.

Even before the reforms were unveiled, the hardline CGT union called for a day of action Sept. 12, and on Thursday it encouraged retirees and students to join in. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has called for another protest on Sept. 23.

One key measure proposed by the government trims the role of unions, notably in small- and medium-size companies — which the prime minister said make up nine out of 10 companies in France and are “at the heart” of the reforms “for the first time.”

Under the reforms, companies with fewer than 50 employees can negotiate work rules with an elected colleague — not unionized — and companies with fewer than 20 employees can negotiate directly with their workers.

Another new measure caps the financial penalty for companies sued by dismissed employees, easing concerns of bosses who fear that firing has become too costly. The measure creates a scale of remuneration based on the employee’s seniority.

Yet another change simplifies the departures of a group of employees if the company needs to adapt its staff, with direct negotiations with those leaving.

French subsidiaries of multinationals need no longer justify firings based on the international economic climate. If the company is performing poorly, it can now use France alone as its reference to justify the layoffs.

Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud said the reforms aim to not just change France’s work rules but “to change the behavior of social dialogue in our country.”

But the way the reforms are being enacted is also divisive — via a special procedure that avoids a lengthy debate in parliament. The draft reforms are to be presented at a Cabinet meeting Sept. 20, after endorsement by the Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative body. They are to be ratified by the end of the year.

“All the fears we had are confirmed,” said the head of the communist-backed CGT union, Philippe Martinez. “(It’s) the end of the labor contract.”

The head of the more moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, said his union “is disappointed” but would not join in the September protest.

The union that represents small- and medium-size businesses praised the measure that allows for negotiations with employees’ representatives — not unions — calling it a “major advance” for social dialogue.

However, the main employer’s union in France, MEDEF, called the changes “the beginning of an interesting reform” that will need vigilance as the measures are put into practice.

France’s conservative party, The Republicans, said some measures will help simplify life for companies, but questioned whether the package had the sweep to “relaunch investments and jobs in France.”

Foreign investors and France’s European neighbors were watching Macron’s plan closely. France is the No. 2 economy in the 19-nation eurozone, but its chronic 10 percent unemployment has long weighed on the region’s growth. Partners have repeatedly called on France to reform its job market to boost Europe economically.

Macron said the labor law overhaul was essential.

“We must see things as they are: We are the only major economy of the European Union which hasn’t vanquished mass unemployment in more than three decades,” Macron told the newsmagazine Le Point.

___

Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

Rescuers start block-by-block search of flooded Houston

By JEFF AMY and MATT SEDENSKY, Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — Rescuers began a block-by-block search of tens of thousands of Houston homes Thursday, pounding on doors and shouting as they looked for anyone — alive or dead — who might have been left behind in Harvey’s fetid floodwaters, which have now heavily damaged more than 37,000 homes and destroyed nearly 7,000 statewide.

More than 200 firefighters, police officers and members of an urban search-and-rescue team fanned out across the Meyerland neighborhood for survivors or bodies. They yelled “fire department!” as they pounded with closed fists on doors, peered through windows and checked with neighbors. The streets were dry but heaped with soggy furniture, carpet and wood.

“We don’t think we’re going to find any humans, but we’re prepared if we do,” said District Chief James Pennington of the Houston Fire Department.

The confirmed death toll stood at 31, though it is expected to rise. But by midday, the temporary command center in a J.C. Penney parking lot had received no reports of more bodies from the searches, which are expected to take up to two weeks.

Unlike during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans, crews used GPS devices to log the homes they checked rather than spray painting neon X’s on the homes, which also avoided alerting potential thieves to vacant homes.

Elsewhere, the loss of power at a chemical plant set off explosions that prompted a public health warning. The blasts at the Arkema Inc. plant northeast of Houston also ignited a 30- to 40-foot flame and sent up a plume of smoke that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency initially described as “incredibly dangerous.”

FEMA later backed away from that statement, saying that Administrator Brock Long spoke out of an abundance of caution. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the smoke showed that it posed no immediate threat to public health, the agency said.

The French operator of the plant feared that up to eight more chemical containers could burn and explode.

The latest damage surveys revealed the staggering extent of the destruction. The figures from the Texas Department of Public Safety did not include the tens of thousands of homes with minor damage.

About 32,000 people were in shelters across the state, emergency officials reported.

The Harris County FEMA director said the agency was looking at how to house people who have lost their homes to Harvey. The priority is to get them out of shelters and into some form of temporary housing, with hotels being one option, he said.

“Right now nothing is off the table,” Tom Fargione said Thursday. “This is a tremendous disaster in terms of size and scope. I want to get thinking beyond traditional methodologies you’ve seen in the past.”

As the water began to recede in the nation’s fourth-largest city, the threat of major damage from the storm shifted to a region near the Texas-Louisiana state line.

Beaumont, with a population of nearly 120,000, and nearby Port Arthur struggled with rising water after being pounded with what remained of the weakening storm. Beaumont lost water service after its main pump station was overwhelmed by the swollen Neches River. That forced Baptist Beaumont Hospital to airlift nearly 200 patients to other facilities.

Port Arthur found itself isolated as floodwaters swamped most major roads out of the city. More than 500 people — along with dozens of dogs, cats, a lizard and a monkey — took shelter at the Max Bowl bowling alley, general manager Jeff Tolliver said.

“The monkey was a little surprising, but we’re trying to help,” he said.

To help with the recovery, about 10,000 more National Guard troops are being deployed to Texas, bringing the total to 24,000, Gov. Greg Abbott said.

Floodwaters also toppled two oil storage tanks in South Texas, spilling almost 30,000 gallons (114,000 liters) of crude. It was not immediately clear whether any of the spilled oil was recovered. More damage to the oil industry infrastructure is expected to emerge as floodwaters recede.

Economists said the storm shut down everything from plastics plants to oil refineries to the Houston port — the second-busiest in the nation — which could affect the nation’s economy.

Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm, calculates that economic damage could shave between 0.3 and 1.2 percentage points off the nation’s economic growth in the July-September quarter. The economy had been expected to grow at an annual rate of about 3 percent from July through September.

Although it has been downgraded to a tropical depression, Harvey was still expected to dump heavy rain on parts of Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky through Friday. Forecast totals ranged from 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters), with some places possibly getting up to a foot.

For much of the Houston area, the rain had passed. But with temperatures likely to climb in to the low 90s over the weekend, residents were warned about the dangers of heat exhaustion, especially for people who lost power or must toil outdoors.

Houston’s two major airports were slowly resuming full service. Limited bus and light rail service had also been restored, as well as trash pickup.

Harvey initially came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane in Texas on Friday, then went back out to sea and lingered off the coast as a tropical storm for days, inundating flood-prone Houston.

Harvey’s five straight days of rain totaled close to 52 inches, the heaviest tropical downpour ever recorded in the continental U.S.

___

Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Michael Graczyk in Houston; Nomaan Merchant in Houston; Diana Heidgerd and David Warren in Dallas; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas; and Tammy Webber in Chicago contributed to this report.

___

Sign up for AP’s daily newsletter showcasing our best all-formats reporting on Harvey and its aftermath: http://apne.ws/ahYQGtb .