For several days now, the French people have been faced with a serious shortage of petrol throughout the country. The cause is not due to restrictions imposed by the war in Ukraine; a strike at the country’s main petrol refineries has cut off supplies.
Workers, striking at the petrol refineries that mainly belong to the CGT union (Confédération Générale du Travail), have started a showdown with the oil companies TotalÉnergie and Esso-ExxonMobil for pay raises. The workers feel justified because of the increased profits made by both groups as a result of the surge in oil prices in recent months due to the war in Russia and Ukraine. Employees and managers are fighting in the press over the real amount of their pay to support their demands.
Strikers are blocking fuel depots, and service stations are emptying one after the other. The movement has progressively strengthened and hardened, since as of Wednesday, October 12th, six of the eight French refineries are on strike, even as the beginning of an agreement seems to be forming on the side of Esso-ExxonMobil, and negotiations are continuing at TotalÉnergie. The unions want to keep up the pressure to ensure that all their demands are met.
The situation is becoming critical as the lack of fuel is paralysing the whole economy. Deliveries of perishable goods and merchandise are hampered, and employees can no longer get to their workplaces, especially outside Paris where, due to the lack of a sufficient public transport network, dependence on privately owned vehicles is high. Fuel trafficking is beginning to appear: on the internet, there are proposals to sell fuel illegally at more than €3 per litre. Service station managers are obliged to introduce gauges and prevent the use of jerry cans because some unscrupulous customers are stockpiling fuel.
Given the emergency, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced on Tuesday, October 11th, the requisition of personnel to unblock the fuel depots of the Esso-ExxonMobil group. The first requisition is anticipated for the Esso refinery in Gravenchon-Port-Jérôme in Seine-Maritime, but CGT trade unionists consider such a move ‘illegal;’ contrary to the constitutionally guaranteed right to strike. “The requisition should only concern essential activities (medical, rescue, and security vehicles). The organisation and supply of these activities are the responsibility of the government. To do this, France has so-called strategic fuel stocks. Why doesn’t it use them?”, the union says.
But the strategic petrol stocks, which are intended to last 90 days, have already been partly used in some regions. The government does not wish to draw from them in an ill-considered way, because they are also there to make it possible to mitigate the difficulties of provisioning, which could worsen as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict devolves. Minister of energy transition Agnès Pannier-Runacher explains that she wants to get around the blockades by increasing imports, particularly from the Benelux countries, but the process is slow and it will take time before service stations are effectively supplied.
TotalÉnergie held a meeting Wednesday, October 12th at 2 p.m. for all the non-striking unions. The CGT had also been invited on condition that all blockades be lifted. The union intends to continue the strike but has announced that it will send a delegation to follow the discussions. A trade union official told RMC that the tone was likely to rise: “It’s going to get ugly,” he said.
For the moment, no real lasting solution to the conflict is in sight. The government nevertheless wants to reassure the population. Olivier Véran, government spokesman, says “there is no shortage” but only “supply difficulties.” But within the context of an international energy crisis, the confidence is not there.