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The French fuel crisis for dummies: 27 key questions
Photo: AFP

The French fuel crisis for dummies: 27 key questions

Ben McPartland · 26 May 2016, 11:47

Published: 26 May 2016 11:47 GMT+02:00

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1.       First of all what's going on?

In case you hadn’t heard, workers at French refineries have been on strike and putting up blockades at fuel depots, which has led to fuel shortages at thousands of petrol stations across France.

2.       How bad is it?

Unofficial estimates on Thursday say over 4,600 of the country’s petrol stations were either completely empty or running very low.

3.       So France has got no petrol?

No it has fuel, plenty of it, but it’s either behind a blockade or not being delivered due to a strike or quickly being gobbled up by motorists faster than it can be delivered.

4.       Will it run out?

The government insists it won’t, but it has already started dipping into its reported 115 days-worth of reserves. Supplies are getting through though and the government is demolishing blockades.

5.       Should motorists be blamed?

Partly. The demand in recent days has reportedly gone up five times. That’s because many motorists are filling their tanks as a precaution rather than out of necessity.

6.       What should we do?

Motorists are advised to ditch their cars if they can, and only fill up their tanks if they really need to. The good news is that many motorists have told The Local how the roads are far quieter than normal. So if you have fuel enjoy the journey.

7.       Is it getting worse?

It appears to be. The two maps below from the smartphone App “Essence” show where the shortages were on Monday, when around 1,500 petrol stations were running low, compared to Thursday below.

(Monday May 23rd)

(Thursday May 26th)

8.       That makes it look like there’s no fuel at all anywhere in France?

Different parts of the country have been hit harder. The north and the north west were the worst affected and the east and the centre largely spared the problems. Readers around the country are reporting either long searches to find petrol stations or long queues once they find one. However many have reported no problems at all.

9.       How can I know where to find petrol?

(Photo: AFP)

Well you can do it old school and drive around looking for a petrol station or you can make use of new technology and check out these five smartphone apps, that appear to be the most useful for helping link the public to the pumps. Word of mouth is always good too and readers are regularly sharing info on The Local France’s Facebook page.

10.   What about emergency services?

Local authorities have taken action to make sure ambulances, doctors, firefighters, and police can get their hands on petrol. Either they are given priority access and can jump the queue, or certain service stations are being set aside for them.

11.   Surely this is hitting the economy?

Indeed it is. Business leaders are fuming and have issued an alarm call. This article tells you more about the impact on the economy.

12.   How are the French public bearing up?

Remarkably well in fact. Although a few are clearly feeling the strain - see photo of fight at petrol station below.

Many whom The Local have spoken to admit they are frustrated but still support the workers and their right to strike and cause havoc. That falls into line with polls which still suggest a majority of the French public are against the labour reforms bill and an even bigger majority would like to see the bill scrapped if it meant an end to the strikes.

13.       Hold on they support these strikers?

Many do. This isn’t the UK or the US. The public have higher tolerance level when it comes to industrial action and militant protests. They didn’t get all their famous workers’ rights without a fight, right?

Many look beyond their own empty petrol tank to the big picture. They see it as part of a bigger struggle to protect France’s way of life. Opinion polls suggest most French people, while they are not striking, are opposed to the government’s labour reforms bill.

14.   Hold on labour reforms? Is that what this is all about?

Yes. An attempt to make the labour market more flexible has angered hardline trade unions, who believe the reforms are far too favourable towards businesses at the expense of workers’ rights.

15.   Are they? 

Well given that business leaders blast the bill for not going far enough it’s hard to know who exactly they favour. Many of the articles are clearly aimed at helping businesses to be more flexible when it comes to working hours, overtime and redundancies.

The government’s main point is that they are meant to help the millions of French people out of work by making it easier for companies to let staff go and therefor hire others. But many critics, including the IMF, say the bill has been watered down so much the reforms will do little to create jobs.

16.   So why are the trade unions in such a tizz?

Not all trade unions are up in arms. Reformist unions like the CFDT say the bill contains important new rights for young workers. The protests are being led by the CGT and its combative leader Philippe Martinez (photo above) and to a lesser extent by Force Ouvriere, which is more hardline and more militant.

They say the bill will erode workers' rights. They are also worried about a loss of influence in the work place. One particular article of the bill appears to be their main source of anger and it’s obvious why.

17.   Can you tell me more about this particular article?

It's called Article 2. It’s complicated but in short the reform would see companies being able to negotiate agreements around the length of a working week, holidays, and rest times, directly with their employees rather than the rules being decided at sector level (accord de branche) where union reps would be involved.

So in short it means a loss of influence for unions, which they say will mean a loss of rights for workers.

18.   Can’t they just ditch article 2 and get on with the summer?

Some members of the government and the Socialist party have suggested it could, even should be done. It’s not clear whether the unions would drop their protests, given that up until now they have been calling for the whole bill to be dropped. However on Thursday PM Manuel Valls (centre of pic) insisted article 2 will remain, though he did suggest the government was open to certain modifications.

19.   Who’s really to blame then?

Partly the government. They used something known as article 49-3 to push the bill through parliament without a vote, which gave new life to protests that had appeared to be dwindling. 49-3 might be legal but it’s not legitimate, as one specialist on labour disputes told The Local. Plus they have already shown they are capable of caving in by watering down the bill already. That has given the unions a scent of blood.

20.   So it’s all the government’s fault?

No, of course not. The CGT union are not just fighting for the rights of workers but their own status as a union. The radical action is partly aimed at helping them remain relevant and in the limelight, rather than fighting the corner of workers. This week the CGT blocked spitefully the sale of newspapers of newspapers who refused to print a column by its leader Philippe Martinez. Hardly believers in freedom of the press then?

21.   How’s it all going to end?

Story continues below…

One politician described the battle between the union and the government as a fight to the death, which suggests it won’t end anytime soon. The CGT has vowed to fight on and is promising more disruption, while the government insists the law of the country is not made by trade unions and that the bill will remain.

But there is still a while to go before the bill completes its parliamentary process. It will go before the senate on June 14th and then must go back to the lower National Assembly for a second time.

22.   Will parliament pass it?

Errr. Kind of. The government is likely to use its trusty tactic of 49-3 which means they don’t need to put it to a vote, which they would lose because so many of their own MPs would vote against it..

23.   So we are stuck with this crisis for a while then?

Given that the two sides are not talking to each other, it seems as though we are. The turn out for strikes is slowly dwindling, so protests may not be as disruptive. But we can expect new tactics to be used, as we have seen with strikes at the nuclear power plants.

24.   What about Euro 2016?

Well it could be problematic. There are a number of rolling strikes planned before and during the tournament. For a full list click here.

25.   And the summer holidays?

Summer in France would not be the same without a few strikes and blockades. Last year it was the ferry workers and the farmers, this year it’s fuel workers and rail staff. C’est la vie. Plus the French protesters, strikers included, will want their holiday too remember, so it's unlikely to go on into late July and August.

26.   But can I still come to France if they have no petrol?

Yes. Indeed. You might have to make a few changes to ensure you don’t run out of petrol. Breakdown companies in the UK have given some useful advice in this article.

27. Anything else I need to know?

This has happened before. Most recently back in 2010 and France survived intact. It might not have changed much, but do you really want it to?

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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