French government begins ordering striking refinery workers back to their posts

The French government is to begin on Wednesday ordering some refinery workers back to their posts for the first time, in an attempt to break a strike and blockade that has lead to petrol and diesel shortages.

French government begins ordering striking refinery workers back to their posts
Striking workers and unionists of the CGT gather outside Esso's oil refinery in Fos-sur-Mer, southern France. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

The energy transition ministry said the requisitioning of workers at a Esso-ExxonMobil fuel depot at a refinery at Gravenchon-Port-Jerome in northern France “will begin today”.

Workers at the refineries have voted to continue their strike, defying the government’s announcement that it will use the rarely-used emergency power of ‘requisition’ to force them back to work.

Industrial action to demand large pay rises has paralysed six out of seven fuel refineries in France, leading to nation-wide shortages exacerbated by panic-buying from drivers.

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

AFP reporters at two refineries owned by US giant Esso-ExxonMobil saw workers raise their hands in favour of continuing their strike on Wednesday morning, while trade unions confirmed continuing stoppages at four sites owned by France’s TotalEnergies.

Government ministers have urged a negotiated resolution to the crisis, but on Tuesday announced that they would resort to direct intervention to get supplies flowing again as frustration mounts.

MAP: How to find petrol or diesel during France’s fuel shortages

The state has the powers to requisition refineries and force workers back to their jobs in an emergency, with the risk of fines or jail time for those that refuse. These powers, coded into law in 2003, are very rarely deployed. 

Late on Tuesday, TotalEnergies offered to consult unions whose workers were not on strike.

Analysts say the government is reluctant to inflame the conflict, which is being led by the hard-left CGT union, the second-biggest union in France.

The crisis comes at a time of high energy prices and inflation, while TotalEnergies’ bumper profits have caused widespread anger, leading to calls for the group to face a windfall tax.

Those calls have been consistently refused by the government.

The stand-off could add impetus to a march planned by left-wing political parties on Sunday against the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron and the high cost of living.

“I hope this is the spark that begins a general strike,” leading Greens party MP, Sandrine Rousseau, told franceinfo radio early on Wednesday.

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Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

Paris regional officials have reportedly asked the French Senate to limit the right to strike during the 2024 Olympics in an effort to ensure smooth operations for public transport.

Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

As unions organise ahead of a day of mobilisation and walkouts on January 31st to protest proposed pension reform, head of the greater Paris region (and right-wing former presidential candidate) Valérie Pécresse ha reportedly requested that the French government restricts the right to strike during the 2024 Games.

A member of Pécresse’s team told Le Parisien that the objective was to place limits on the right to strike in an attempt to stop certain unions from abusing the right and “completely disrupting [public transport] services”. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

However, the proposals were rejected by the French Senate and were denounced by unions as “another attack on the right to strike”.

Although strikes are common in France there are some limits – workers in essential industries like public transport must give 48 hours’ notice of their intention to strike and workers in certain sectors including the army and emergency services are banned from striking.

The French government also has a rarely-used strike-busting power which allows it to force strikers back to work if their actions are affecting the security of the county.

Pécresse’s request came just a few days before the French government was set to debate an “Olympics bill” – which will establish some exemptions to current regulations in the effort of ensuring “smooth running” of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Concerns have arisen regarding the possibility of industrial action during the Olympic Games, which will come after the controversial opening up of competition the Paris public transport system (the RATP). During a speech in mid-January, Pécresse told IDFM that she hoped to create “100 percent guaranteed service during peak hours” on public transport, even during strike action.

Members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet have also expressed apprehension about possible strike action during the Olympics.

The attempt to add amendments that would restrict striking came just a day after French Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, told Télématin that there were no plans to “touch the right to strike”, but that Macron had tasked the ministry with look into setting up more significant warning periods, as well as safeguarded periods for “vacation departures”. The minister also discussed the idea of having reserves of workers who could be mobilised to help during strike periods.

It was a member of Pécresse’s centre-right party – Philippe Tabarot – sought to add amendments restricting the right to strike to the bill, but they were ultimately rejected by the Senate. He referred to strike action at French national rail services (SNCF) during the Christmas holidays – which left 200,000 people without transport – as “intolerable” and said that “the right to strike is now being abused”.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t strike at Christmas’ – fury in France as trains cancelled

According to Le Parisien, Tabraot specifically sought require unions to provide strike notice at least 72-hours ahead of industrial action – instead of the current 48-hours. Additionally, the proposed amendments would make it so unions could not reactive an old “unlimited” strike notice that was filed several years ago and has since gone unused. The latter would attempt to diminish workers’ ability to spontaneously walk out.

And finally Tabarot hoped to add an amendment that would limit ‘short strikes’ by requiring workers to join strike action “at the start of their first shift” that day. This would make it so workers could not walk out in the middle of services for ‘short’ (under 59 minute) strikes.

Even though Tabarot’s amendments were not accepted during this attempt, the elected official said that the Senate would have to return to the subject in the following weeks and months, as the French parliament continues to consider the Olympics bill.