Fuel shortages in France cause motorists frustration and government anxiety

Gasoline 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 appealed for calm.

On Friday morning, a queue hundreds of meters long snaked from a gas station in the Paris suburbs.

“We’ve been waiting an hour” said a motorist, whose car was already empty. “The tail hasn’t moved at all. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”

Another driver joined the line of vehicles after trying two other stations, one of them across the street. “I got there at the same time as everyone else, then the signs showed there was no more gasoline left,” he said.

Fuel shortages are hitting gas stations across Francecausing frustration and long waits for motorists as the strike by TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil workers enters its 12th day.

Three out of six refineries are currently closed in France due to worker strikes that have reduced production by 60%, equivalent to 740,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Most of TotalEnergies’ network of around 3,500 service stations, almost a third of all stations in the country, is running out of fuel.

Government figures estimate that only 19% of service stations are affected, with particular shortages in the north. But the chairman of retail chain Système U, Dominique Schelcher, told FranceInfo radio that the government figure underestimated the disruption.

“Only the west [of France] will have fuel reserves,” 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 shortage has thrown businesses including delivery services, healthcare, logistics chains and taxi companies into chaos.

“What worries me is [what will happen to] people with disabilities, because we run the risk of not being there for them if this continues”, said a taxi driver, waiting at a gas pump in Paris. “I only have half of my reserve tank left.”

‘nothing can get out’

The French union CGT called a strike against TotalEnergies more than a week ago as part of a broader action across the French energy sector.

Workers are demanding wage increases amid a cost-of-living crisis and soaring profits in the energy industry.

In the second quarter of 2022, TotalEnergies posted a profit of $5.7 billion compared to $2.2 million during the same period in 2021.

CGT has requested a tax on these profits and a 10% wage increase: 7% to offset inflation and 3% “profit sharing,” demands that have been largely supported by energy workers.

At 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 6 am shift,” adding: “Normally there are 250 to 300 trucks every day and from 30 to 50 train cars. Now nothing can come out.”

About 70% of ExxonMobil workers were also on strike, CGT representative Christophe Aubert said. “It’s the same workforce on shift all weekend, so nothing will move and nothing will come 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 wage increase of 3.5%.

TotalEnergies has downplayed the impact of its workers’ strike, instead maintaining that supplies are under pressure due to the popularity of the company’s discounted fuel prices in recent months.

Demand at TotalEnergies service stations has increased by about 30 percent, as customers have taken advantage of discounts offered by the company amid rising fuel costs.

‘Do not panic’

As frustrations mount for striking energy workers and motorists, so do the stakes for the French government.

“Let’s not panic,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday, as he appealed to all sides for calm. However, even as the president called for an end to the strikes, he agreed that Total executives should take into account the “legitimate wage demands” of their workers.

Their demands come amid a worsening cost-of-living crisis. At the same press conference, the president warned about difficult months ahead for gasoline prices, as food costs are expected to keep flying.

Negotiations between the French government and unions, including the CGT, over pension reforms are also expected to generate tension in the coming months.

However, gasoline, especially, occupies a place of special importance in the French psyche. “Fuel prices are synonymous with yellow vests (Yellow vest protesters),” said Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham.

“The current situation worries [the government] as a foretaste of trouble to come, a potential winter of discontent.”

The gilets jaunes protest movement, sparked in the winter of 2018 by rising gasoline prices, saw thousands of people take to the streets for weeks as a gesture of defiance against the authorities and President Macron.

>> For France’s yellow vest protesters, the fight continues

While government spokesman Olivier Véran sidestepped referring to gasoline shortages on Wednesday, instead citing “temporary tensions” affecting supply, the government is taking additional steps to ensure gasoline reaches the pumps.

Exceptionally, fuel tankers will be allowed to operate on Sundays to make deliveries and the government has dipped into its strategic fuel reserves to supplement available stocks.

Currently, there are fuel reserves for 90 days, said the minister for energy transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher.

Meanwhile, efforts are also being made to open discussions between CGT and TotalEnergies, so far without success.

More strikes are expected in the coming days.

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