world news French railway workers and civil servants voted on Thursday to join striking oil refinery staff with a walkout next week after the French government resorted to emergency powers to compel some fuel depot workers to return to their jobs in a bid to ease petrol shortages.
Railway staff and civil servants represented by the CGT union, the biggest in the public sector, will stop work next Tuesday, with several labour groups calling for a national day of stoppages.
The CGT said it was pushing for higher wages for railway workers but also wanted to protest government efforts to break a strike by refinery workers that has caused nationwide fuel shortages.
“Railway workers want to press again for salary improvements and denounce the repression and attack against the right to strike,” said a union statement.
The government has resorted to emergency powers to compel some striking refinery workers to return to their jobs to release fuel stocks stuck inside blockaded facilities.
The industrial action has reduced France’s refinery capacity by more than 60 percent and left one in three fuel stations struggling for fuel.
Motorists across the country have faced long queues to fill tanks at stations that often run dry in a day, as six of France’s seven refineries have been shut down.
“I have to honour my contracts for cleaning homes. And when there’s no petrol and I have a lot of rounds to make, things get complicated,” said Elisabeth Mailhes, waiting at a station in the capital.
President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the mounting anger in a televised address Wednesday, promising that relief was in sight for next week.
The office of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said Thursday the government was “counting on talks resuming in the coming hours between management and labour representatives”.
But in the meantime, essential workers were told to return to work Thursday at the huge TotalEnergies fuel depot near Dunkirk, northern France, where around a dozen police were stationed outside, an AFP journalist saw.
Borne’s office cited a “real economic threat” for much of northern France, which relies heavily on agriculture, fishing and industry.
The CGT and FO unions leading the refineries strike have said they will fight the requisition orders in court, calling them an illegal manoeuvre against the right to labour action.
“This is the Macron dictatorship,” said Benjamin Tange, a CGT official at the Dunkirk site.
“What we’re seeing is the anger built up over several months and years, and a breakdown of any social dialogue,” he said.
Escalation of tensions fearedThe government had already requisitioned depot workers to return to the Esso-ExxonMobil refinery at Gravenchon-Port-Jérôme in northern France on Wednesday.
In response, the CGT is pushing to extend the strike throughout the energy sector, potentially disrupting operations in the country’s all-important nuclear sector.
“The time for a confrontation (with the government) has arrived,” left-wing opposition parliamentarian Clementine Autain from the France Unbowed party told France 2 television on Thursday.
The refinery unions are seeking pay hikes in response to steep inflation, pointing to the massive profits of energy companies as gas and oil prices have soared during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, TotalEnergies told AFP it would propose a six percent raise for next year, below the CGT’s demand for an immediate 10 percent hike, retroactive to January 1.
“We’re not going to negotiate through the media,” responded Eric Sellini, the CGT coordinator at the company.
Government officials are pressing the companies to negotiate, fearing an escalation of tensions ahead of a nationwide march Sunday against inflation, organised by Macron’s left-wing opponents.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio that given TotalEnergies’ huge profits this year, it had “the capacity … and therefore an obligation” to raise workers’ pay.
The company had “come late” in starting talks with unions, Le Maire added.
In a sign that talks are making some headway, striking workers at the Esso-ExxonMobil refinery in Fos-sur-Mer, outside Marseille in the southeast, voted Thursday to lift the blockade after reaching a pay deal.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)