In the northern French city of Dunkirk, near a vast fuel depot hit by strikes for the past three weeks, shortages at petrol stations have become so severe that taxi driver Saïd Fertakh has seen his earnings dwindle as he spends time trying to find somewhere to fill up his car.
“It’s becoming a struggle,” Fertakh said after filling up at one newly replenished station, where there was a long line of truckers and other motorists. “I spent an hour in a queue last week. I’ve had to say no to some customers because I needed to find somewhere to refuel.”
Strikes by oil refinery workers demanding higher wages, led by the hard-left CGT union, have become a major test for the French government as it grapples with the fallout from Europe’s energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The walkouts at some TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil sites left a third of petrol stations reporting shortages, forcing France to buy expensive diesel imports, while the state’s efforts to blunt the effect of soaring energy prices with fuel subsidies caused runs on some petrol stations.
With few quick or cheap fixes to the high costs of fuel and other goods, the risk for the state is that the industrial action spreads to other sectors or morphs into a repeat of the citizen-led gilets jaunes (yellow vest) anti-government protests that blighted president Emmanuel Macron’s first term
With hard-left unions leading the charge, “it’s always hard to know if something like this will lead to a broader social movement,” said Dominique Andolfatto, a political scientist at the university of Burgundy. “[But] there are a lot of worries provoked by the increase in prices and especially energy prices.”
Some of the ingredients are present for broader unrest. Emboldened by the fuel row, the CGT and other unions have called for a general strike one day next week, rallying transport operators like train group SNCF and student groups. The left-leaning political alliance Nupes is adding to the calls for a wider movement, with a march protesting against the rising cost of living planned this weekend.
As well as bringing in price caps on electricity and gas bills for households, the French government has tried to shield pinched household budgets by appealing for help from businesses to defuse the backlash.
“All the companies that are able to raise salaries should do so,” prime minister Élisabeth Borne told the French senate this week.
But it also resorted this week to rarely used legal orders to force some critical fuel workers back to the depots. The move was sharply criticised by unions and led the CGT to extend its strike to another refinery.
“We seem to be going back to a time of masters and slaves, where you have to work, you have no other choice,” said Benjamin Tanges, a CGT representative at the Total depot near Dunkirk.
The emergency orders have had some effect. Some fuel deliveries are starting to resume, with tanker trucks leaving the Dunkirk depot for the first time in three weeks. Striking workers can face six-month prison sentences and fines if they do not comply with the so-called requisition orders.
While the strikes have been constrained so far mainly to refineries and depots, where the CGT has high membership levels, the walkouts have had an outsized impact because of the importance of the energy sector.
“When you’ve got a shortage of mustard, the state doesn’t have to deal with it. When it comes to fuel, it’s not the same,” said Bernard Sananès, the head of polling agency Elabe.
In another sign of spreading pressure, maintenance work at eight French nuclear power reactors was halted on Wednesday due to CGT-led walkouts. That will cause further delays to state-controlled utility EDF’s attempts to get more plants back online and boost strained power supplies.
CGT-affiliated workers at Total have been calling for a backdated 10 per cent increase in salaries for 2022, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rise agreed earlier in the year. They have so far shunned an initial agreement struck with the CFDT and CFE-CGC unions for a 7 per cent salary raise, and pursued strikes at refineries on Friday.
Elsewhere there were signs of breakthroughs, which could ease the pressures on the government. Exxon, via its French branch Esso, reached a deal this week with two other unions to raise salaries by 6.5 per cent next year and add bonuses, and even CGT workers had called off some strikes at Esso sites.
France’s biggest union, the more centrist CFDT, has so far shied away from calls for a national strike, meanwhile, and support across the country for the refinery strikers has been mixed. A poll by Elabe this week showed public support and hostility to the fuel stoppages at a roughly equal 40 per cent, while levels of public support was far higher for protesters at the start of the gilets jaunes movement in 2018 than for the refinery walkouts, Sananès said.
In Dunkirk, residents have resorted to alternatives to avoid running dry, such as making the short journey across the border to Belgium to fill up. A local fire station with its own reserves of fuel opened its stock to hospital staff, a worker there said. Some truckers said they had turned to vehicles that can run on rapeseed oil.
Some residents in the port city support the walkouts despite the inconveniences, citing Total’s record profits on the back of soaring commodities prices.
“They’re right to strike,” said Lynda Soulatge, a worker at a car dealership which has also suffered fuel shortages. “Everybody has noticed that life is more expensive now.”
Additional reporting by Akila Quinio in Paris