OPINION: The French government's use of strike-breaking powers could be a political hand grenade

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: The French government's use of strike-breaking powers could be a political hand grenade
Workers and CGT unionists take part in a blockade at the entrance of Total Energies refinery in La Mede, southern France. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

A strike over pay by workers at French oil refineries took a political turn on Tuesday when the government decided to use emergency strike-breaking powers - John Lichfield looks at the likely consequences and why the government has decided to act.


All strikes in France are political but some are more political than others.

The oil-refinery strike which has closed filling stations in large parts of France is not, in theory, political. It is about wages and the right of refinery workers to share in the windfall profits of oil companies.

The strike has just become very political indeed. The government’s decision to use its emergency powers to “requisition” workers in two of the five striking refineries will be used on the left of the Left to stoke Macronphobia and social unrest this Autumn and winter.


The government, for precisely that reason, wanted to stay out of the dispute. It found itself with little choice.

Something like one in three filling stations has run out of petrol and diesel - more in the Paris area and northern France. In some places, it is becoming difficult for vital public services, from school buses to district nurses, to operate.


The government has already broken into its strategic oil stocks. Its spokesman, Olivier Véran, says that it will if necessary send in the police to lift the union barricades of refineries and fuel depots.

The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced on Tuesday that she would use her powers to force key staff at two refineries back to work. A 2003 law, used only once before, allows governments to “requisition” workers to “protect public order, cleanliness, calm and security”.

In our Talking France podcast you can listen to John Lichfield discuss the fuel blockades and what’s likely to happen next. Download here.


Requisitioning workers and breaking barricades may be justified but it could, in political terms, be like setting off a grenade in an oil-refinery. It could – as the government knows – be a gift to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other left-wing leaders.

Mélenchon has already called on marchers against inflation in Paris this Sunday to “outdo” the starving Parisian women who marched to Versailles in October 1789 and "kidnapped" the King and Queen. Was that an appeal for violence, Citizen Mélenchon? Of course not.

Was this oil strike fundamentally political from the beginning? Oui et non.

The dispute began with that very French thing a “pre-emptive strike” - a strike which starts before there have been negotiations with the bosses. That is itself a political act - an assertion that “class struggle” is more effective than negotiation.

The strikes and blockades of refineries and oil depots have been led by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) – one of the most militant of the eight different French trades union federations.

In British terms, France has eight different Trades Union Congresses, which have different political hues or none. The splintering of the trades union movement by political allegiance or inclination, rather than by job or by trade, is another very French thing.

It makes all trade union activity “political” in a way. The union federations become like political parties, fighting one another for influence, as much as fighting for their members’ interests.

Some government officials and deputies believe that the oil strikes are political in a more specific sense. They say that they are part of a mood of defiance which is being encouraged this Autumn on the left of the Left to try to defeat President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to delay the minimum retirement age.


Some would say that the mood has been encouraged by Macron himself. Macron says that he will talk about pension reform but will accept no significant changes and will use his emergency constitutional powers to force his plan through parliament.

READ ALSO Macron's 3 big battles in France this autumn

In these circumstances, moderate trades union leaders and left-wing politicians complain, it is difficult to argue against “pre-emptive strikes” and the scorn of militants for the “normal” process of negotiation.

The government now faces a difficult balancing act. If it goes all out to break the strike, it could deepen the mood of social unrest generated by inflation and pension reform. If the strikes persist, they could damage an already stuttering economy.

A prolonged strike could also generate public anger against the refinery workers and the CGT.  Both TotalEnergies and Esso ExxonMobil have offered to bring forward annual pay rises. Moderate trades union federations have accepted the Esso offer.

CGT members at the five striking refineries (out of eight in France) are refusing to go back to work until both of the oil giants cave in. They want pay rises of 10 percent, including bonuses for the big profits earned by oil companies this year.

Refinery workers are already pretty well-off in French terms. They work a 32-hour week, retire on full pensions at 59 and earn on average €60,000 a year - 50 percent more than French average earnings.


TotalEnergies says it accepts that they should share in its windfall profits but says that they have already enjoyed profit-related bonuses in 2022.  Union officials say that all these figures are misleading: younger refinery workers typically earn only €30,000 a year (pre-bonuses).

Public sympathy for the strikers is, at present, low to non-existent. If the government does send in the police and requisitions more workers, that may change. It will certainly be used by the more hot-headed anti-inflation marchers this Sunday as a justification for anti-Macron and anti-state violence.

Is this a political strike? Not exactly. But it could rapidly become one.


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