Sunday, September 24, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Sunday, September 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Oil worker strikes leave France running on empty, test weakened Macron

One out of three French gas stations is struggling to stay open after striking oil refinery workers forced 60% of supplies to remain offline. Many gas stations are out of gas altogether. Another difficult season of protests looms for President Emmanuel Macron.

(CN) — A season of protests has returned to France and put President Emmanuel Macron’s weakened government on the back foot as it tries to quell stubborn refinery worker strikes now broadening into other sectors.

For the past two weeks, French motorists have been hit by a nationwide shortage of fuel following a decision by workers at key oil refineries to go on strike for better wages.

This petrol crisis comes at a volatile moment as fuel prices soar globally, largely due to the war in Ukraine, and as the global economy teeters on the brink of recession.

Scenes reminiscent of the 1970s oil crisis are playing out at gas stations across France as motorists wait for hours in snaking lines to fill up their vehicles. It’s caused chaos for many taxis, courier services, ambulances, truck companies and anyone relying on a vehicle.

Reports show that one out of three French gas stations is low on petrol and many have completely run dry. The labor strikes have taken about 60% of France’s oil supply offline.

The fuel shortages are particularly bad in the northern Hauts-de-France and Paris regions, where people are unable to get to work, take children to after-school activities or drive long distances. Gas stations are placing limits on how much fuel customers can buy at once.

Macron’s government is getting dragged into the showdown between striking workers and oil companies, though so far Macron has stayed on the sidelines. But the president — a veteran and victim of past bruising mass demonstrations — may be compelled to take a more forceful stance because this crisis may get even worse as workers in other sectors plan to join the strikes.

It’s a delicate situation for the Élysée Palace because Macron’s party lost its majority in the National Assembly following his successful reelection bid in April.

In the ensuing parliamentary elections in June, though, far-left and far-right parties did very well in the ensuing parliamentary elections and stunned Macron’s centrist, neoliberal Together coalition.

For the first time in more than two decades, France has had to contend with a hung parliament. Macron’s electoral defeat was seen as a strong rebuke from French voters over his ambitious pro-business plans and throws into doubt his domestic agenda.

Macron has campaigned on raising the retirement age by three years to 65 and diluting France’s generous social benefits system, for example by forcing welfare recipients to work and raising college tuition fees.

The far-left trade union General Confederation of Labor is leading the protests. The union has roots in France’s former Communist Party and is best known by its French initials, CGT. It is France’s second-largest union.

The CGT union has gone on strike at France’s TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil refineries for about two weeks. Talks between the French and American energy giants and the hard-left union have faltered.

“We have seen a masquerade … the offers on the table are clearly insufficient,” CGT representative Alexis Antonioli told reporters late Thursday.

TotalEnergies has struck deals with two more moderate unions, the CFDT and CFE-CGC, which represent a majority of refinery workers. They got a 7% pay rise and a bonus payment from 3,000 euros to 6,000 euros ($2,921 to $5,842).

But the standoff with CGT seems set to continue for some time, as workers at four TotalEnergies refineries demand a 10% pay hike to offset inflation. They argue workers should get a slice of windfall profits being made by energy companies during a global fuel shortage that’s driving up prices and profits.

In a rare move, the French government requisitioned some striking ExxonMobil workers and forced them back to work. The union called the move illegal.

The right to strike is protected in France, but a minimum number of workers needed to maintain a public service can be ordered to return to work or risk a 10,000 euro fine ($9,700) and time behind bars.

Philippe Martinez, the tough-talking head of the CGT union, argues that TotalEnergies has the cash on hand to meet the union’s demands. Martinez is seeking to turn up the pressure on companies and the government with calls for workers in other sectors to go on strike. Already, CGT strikes are taking place at some of EDF’s nuclear reactors. The union is calling for a nationwide strike next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, large protests are planned for Sunday in Paris to decry soaring inflation and new pension reform proposals by Macron.

The French president will need to be careful navigating this new season of protests to avoid a repeat of the devastating clash he had with the so-called Yellow Vest protesters in the winter of 2018 over fuel costs and his sweeping reform agenda. In the end, Macron bowed to the pressure and scrapped many of his ambitious neoliberal measures.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @
Categories / Business, Consumers, Economy, Energy, International

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.