Striking workers on Friday at the TotalEnergies refinery near Saint-Nazaire, which supplies fuel for much of western France.
Paris (AFP) - Striking French refinery workers vowed Friday to pursue blockades after spurning a pay offer from industry leader TotalEnergies, prompting alarm over spreading fuel shortages ahead of broader protests in the coming days.
The hard-left CGT union, which launched the industrial action three weeks ago, walked out of talks with Total late Thursday, even as 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 nationwide, on the heels of anti-inflation marches called for Sunday by left-wing opponents of President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s government forced some strikers back to work this week to open fuel depots, a move that infuriated unions but was upheld by a court on Friday, a judicial source told AFP.
“There are signs of improvement at certain sites, where fuel shipments to service stations have resumed,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told regional officials in Agen, southwest France.
Her office late Friday said it hoped for the situation to normalise “in the coming week”.
But nationwide, 28.5 percent of stations are out of at least one type of fuel, only a slight decline from around 30 percent in recent days, Energy Transition Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told reporters in Lille, northern France.
And even though striking workers voted to lift the blockades at two sites owned by US energy major Esso-ExxonMobil, four of the seven refineries in France remain shut.
Esso-ExxonMobil said it will take two to three weeks for the situation to return to normal in the two refineries.
At the TotalEnergies refinery near Saint-Nazaire, which supplies fuel for much of western France, strikers voted to prolong the strike but said some shipments would be allowed over the weekend.
“We’re a responsible union, so we will deliver some fuel to ease tensions, but certainly not every day,” a CGT official at the site, Fabien Prive Saint-Lanne, told reporters.
- ‘We’re worried’ -
France’s wholesale suppliers’ association warned that goods deliveries would be “severely compromised” beginning Friday, as motorists again faced long queues hoping to fill up before the weekend.
Farmers are also worried about compromised harvests as well as seed plantings for next year, in particular wheat and other grains.
Nearly 30 percent of filling stations in France are out of at least one type of fuel
“We’re worried because we have to plant now, when conditions are ideal, not 10 days or a month from now,” said Joel Limouzin, vice president of the FNSEA agriculture union.
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.
The standoff is putting new pressure on Macron as his left-wing opponents see a chance to spur a broader protest against his reform drive.
In their sights is a pensions overhaul that would push back the retirement age from 62, which Macron wants to get 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.
- ‘In denial’ -
Until this week, the government had been reluctant to inflame the refineries dispute, 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 Republicans party – whose support will be crucial for Macron after his centrist grouping lost its parliamentary majority 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 in a country where three-fourths of workers rely on personal vehicles for their jobs, with public support for 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 that if it goes on, we will have to stop working.”