Petrol pumps have been running dry in France as striking energy workers disrupt deliveries. As frustration mounts among motorists, businesses and beyond, President Emmanuel Macron has called for calm.
On Friday morning a queue hundreds of metres long snaked out from a petrol station in the suburbs of Paris.
“We’ve been waiting for an hour,” said one motorist, whose car was already running on empty. “The queue hasn’t moved at all. I don’t know what we are supposed to do.”
Another driver joined the line of vehicles after trying two other stations, one of them just across the street. “I got there at the same time as everyone else, then the signs showed there was no more petrol left,” she said.
Fuel shortages are hitting petrol stations across France, causing frustration and long waits for motorists, as a strike by workers at TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil enters its 12th day.
Three out of six refineries are currently shut down in France due to worker strikes that have cut production by 60%, equivalent to 740,000 barrels of petrol per day. The majority of TotalEnergies’ network of around 3,500 petrol stations – nearly a third of all stations in the country – are running low on fuel.
Government figures estimate that just 19% of petrol stations are affected, with particular shortages in the north. But president of the Système U retail chain, Dominique Schelcher, told FranceInfo radio that the government figure underestimated the disruption.
“Only the west [of France] will have fuel stocks,” he said, adding that “it was impossible to order” fuel in the north, east, and south of France for this weekend.
As well as causing frustration for individual drivers, the shortages have thrown businesses – including delivery services, medical assistance, logistics chains and taxi companies – into chaos.
“What worries me is [what will happen to] disabled people, because we risk not being there for them if this continues,” said one taxi driver, waiting at a petrol pump in Paris. “I’ve only got half of my reserve tank left.”
‘Nothing can get out’
French union CGT called for strike action against TotalEnergies over a week ago as part of a broader action across the French energy sector.
Workers are demanding salary increases against a backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis and soaring profits in the energy industry.
In the second trimester of 2022, TotalEnergies recorded profits of $5.7 billion compared with $2.2 million during the same period in 2021.
CGT has called for a tax on these profits and a 10% salary increase – 7% to counter inflation and 3% “profit sharing”, demands that have been largely supported by energy workers.
At the TotalEnergies refinery in Feyzin near Lyon, production work was continuing but deliveries had stalled.
CGT representative Pedro Afonso told AFP that “100% of dispatch workers were on strike for the 6am shift”, adding: “Normally there are 250 to 300 trucks every day and 30 to 50 rail carriages. Now nothing can get out.”
Some 70% of ExxonMobil workers were also on strike, said CGT representative Christophe Aubert. “It’s the same workforce on shift all weekend, so nothing’s going to move and nothing is getting out.”
The strikes were originally intended to last three days, but almost two weeks later TotalEnergies is still insisting that wage negotiations begin in mid-November, as planned, with an expected average salary increase of 3.5%.
TotalEnergies has downplayed the impact of its worker strike, instead maintaining that supplies are under pressure due to the popularity of the company’s discount fuel prices over the past few months.
Demand at TotalEnergies petrol stations has increased by an estimated 30 percent as customers have taken advantage of discounts offered by the company amid rising fuel costs.
‘Let’s not panic’
As frustrations mount for striking energy workers and motorists, the stakes are also rising for the French government.
“Let’s not panic,” said President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, as he called for calm on all sides. Yet even as the president appealed for an end to the strikes, he agreed that executives at Total should take into account the “legitimate salary demands” of its workers.
Their demands come amid a worsening cost-of-living crisis. In the same press conference, the president warned of difficult months ahead for gas prices, as food costs are expected to continue soaring.
Negotiations between the French government and unions, including CGT, over pension reforms are also expected to cause tension in coming months.
Yet petrol, especially, holds a place of special significance in the French psyche. “Fuel prices are synonymous with the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest protesters),” said Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham.
“The current situation troubles [the government] as a foretaste of problems to come – a potential winter of discontent.”
The Yellow Vest protest movement, sparked in the winter of 2018 by rising petrol prices, saw thousands take to the streets for weeks on end as a gesture of defiance against the authorities and President Macron.
>> For France’s Yellow Vest protesters, the fight goes on
As government spokesperson Olivier Véran sidestepped referring to a petrol shortage on Wednesday, instead citing “temporary tensions” affecting supply, the government is taking extra measures to ensure petrol reaches the pumps.
Fuel tanker trucks will exceptionally be allowed to operate on Sundays to make deliveries and the government has dipped into its strategic fuel reserves to supplement available stocks.
Currently, 90 days’ worth of fuel stocks remain, the minister for energy transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, has said.
In the meantime, efforts are also being made to open discussions between CGT and TotalEnergies – so far without success.
Further strike action is expected in the coming days.