French govt threatens to break refinery blockades as petrol strikes continue

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The French government on Tuesday threatened to forcibly break blockades of refineries and oil depots, which have been paralysed by striking workers, as motorists continued to besiege petrol stations in the hope of filling their tanks. 

Around a third of France’s service stations were still low on, or out of, petrol as strike action at energy giant TotalEnergies and other oil majors entered its third week and wage talks stalled.

Government ministers and President Emmanuel Macron have urged a negotiated resolution to the crisis, but on Tuesday government spokesman Olivier Veran threatened force to end the blockades which have paralysed several of France’s refineries and oil depots.

If blockades were not ended “immediately”, Veran told the RTL broadcaster, “we will step in, which means we could intervene to lift them”.

The government could then “requisition qualified personnel” to ensure that the situation can go “back to normal”, he said.

He said ongoing action by the hard-left CGT union at TotalEnergies installations was “excessive and out of line”.

The oil giant’s management “is right to demand that blockades be lifted before there can be negotiations”, Veran said.

Also on Tuesday, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called breaking up the blockades “the only solution”.

Once access to refineries and depots was free, it would take around two weeks for the fuel situation to return to normal, Veran said.

But stoppages continued at several refineries, including at France’s biggest near Le Havre in the north of the country, after strikers at TotalEnergies Tuesday voted to extend their action.

“We are still waiting for details from management on what they want to negotiate on,” Eric Sellini, coordinator for the CGT union at the oil major, told AFP.

‘What a mess’

Unions at the French branch of Esso-ExxonMobil on Tuesday also renewed their strike call, rejecting a pay offer by management.

Motorists formed long queues outside petrol stations from early Tuesday. In central Paris, traffic slowed as waiting cars blocked roads, cycle paths and pedestrian crossings, hoping to be served before the pumps went dry.

Many used social media to exchange tips. One post in a Facebook group Monday said that a local BP service station would be resupplied “at 2:30 pm”. Another replied: “It’s now 2:37 pm and they’re out of diesel.” 

Another user reacted: “What a mess.”

The petrol crisis comes at a time of high energy prices and inflation that are sapping French households’ purchasing power.

The left-wing opposition coalition Nupes has called for a “March against a high cost of living” in Paris and elsewhere on Sunday.

At the weekend, several prominent French people came out in support of the initiative, including this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Annie Ernaux.

Opposition politicians on the left were quick to criticise the government’s hardening stance Tuesday.

“With this government, when dialogue stalls, it’s threats for the wage earners and caresses for the bosses. And yet, it’s management that let the situation deteriorate,” tweeted Manuel Bompard, a deputy for the leftwing LFI party.

“They act as if ordinary people don’t matter,” said fellow LFI member Francois Ruffin.

Jordan Bardella, president of the far-right RN party, said the government had failed to anticipate the crisis, adding that “super profits at Total and the salary of the chairman” made worker demands “not unreasonable”.

But Gilles Platret, vice president of the conservative LR party, backed the government’s tougher stance, saying strikers were “taking an entire country hostage”.

TotalEnergies posted a profit of $5.7 billion in the second quarter of the year, more than double the year-earlier figure.

CEO Patrick Pouyanne’s total compensation package was 5.9 million euros ($5.7 million) in 2021, up 52 percent from the previous year’s, according to the group’s annual report.


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