French fuel shortages take toll as strike standoff hardens

Gas station
Motorists queue for fuel at a gas station in Paris on October 13, 2022, as filling stations across France are low on petrol as a pay-related strike by workers at energy giant TotalEnergies entered its third week despite government pressure to negotiate. (Photo: AFP)
PARIS — Striking French refinery workers vowed Friday to maintain their blockades after rejecting a pay offer from oil giant TotalEnergies, raising the specter of worsening fuel shortages ahead of a general public-sector strike next week.اضافة اعلان

The hard-left CGT union, which initiated the industrial action, walked out of talks with Total late Thursday, though other unions representing a majority of workers accepted a deal.

"We're not blind, we know this is impacting daily life for all the French," CGT chief Philippe Martinez told Franceinfo radio, calling on the government to put pressure on the company to renegotiate.

His union has called a strike for Tuesday that could disrupt public transport, following anti-inflation marches planned for Sunday by left-wing opponents of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron's government has forced some strikers back to work to open fuel depots after three weeks of blockades, a move that infuriated unions but was upheld by a court on Friday, a judicial source told AFP.

According to the energy transition ministry, four of the country's seven refineries remain shut, and around a third of the country's service stations are either low on petrol or completely dry.

France's wholesale supplier's association warned that deliveries would be "severely compromised" beginning Friday, as motorists again faced long queues hoping to fill up before the weekend.

Officials in the southeastern Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region said it would make train and bus transport free until Sunday night because of the fuel shortages.

'Time for confrontation'
Macron promised Wednesday that relief would come next week, but left-wing opponents see a chance to spark a broader protest against his reform drive.

In particular, they seek to derail a pensions overhaul that would push back the retirement age from 62, which Macron wants to push through parliament in the coming months.

"The time for a confrontation has arrived," parliamentarian Clementine Autain from the France Unbowed party told France 2 television on Thursday.

But not all unions have joined the call for the general strike next Tuesday, with the country's biggest, the CFDT, opting out.  

Until this week, the government had been reluctant to inflame the pay dispute at TotalEnergies and the US giant Esso-ExxonMobil, prompting critics to say it was oblivious to the strike's impact on everyday workers.

"For two weeks, there was no management of this problem, they were in denial," said Eric Ciotti of the right-wing Republican party -- whose support will be crucial for Macron after his centrist grouping lost its parliamentary majority earlier this year.

The CGT is pushing for a 10 percent raise, citing TotalEnergies' net profit of $5.7 billion in the April-June period as energy prices soared with the war in Ukraine and its payout of billions of euros in dividends to shareholders. 

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio Thursday that given its huge profits, the company had "the capacity... and therefore an obligation" to raise workers' pay.

But the union risks stoking resentment, with public support of the strike at just 37 percent in a BVA poll released Friday.

"For the past four or five days, it has been catastrophic," said Francoise Ernst, who works at a driving school in Paris. 

"And I think if it goes on, we will have to stop working."

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