France orders striking oil workers back to refineries amid “unbearable” gas station shortages

Paris — France’s premier ordered striking oil workers back to their refineries on Wednesday, as long lines persisted at gas stations across the country. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France’s parliament that the situation had become “unbearable” in some parts of France, as drivers lined up for hours and many gas pumps ran dry.

Her decision to order the requisition of essential workers came after a deal was negotiated Monday between oil producer Esso, the French branch of ExxonMobil, and two workers’ unions. Other unions voted to continue the strike at two Esso refineries, despite the order from the government in Paris.

The striking workers said they would continue their action despite the government’s move. The workers are demanding a pay rise, arguing their salaries cannot keep up with inflation that has soared to almost 6% in France this year. The strike action began two weeks ago, shutting down refineries across much of the north and east of the country.

Angered by the requisition order, another union joined the strike on Wednesday, extending the blockades.

Government spokesman Olivier Véran warned that the requisition of essential workers could be extended to strikers at four other refineries, owned by France’s TotalEnergies.

Officials have said that more than 30% of gas stations across France are now having trouble getting fuel supplies. Véran said, however, that once essential workers were ordered back to an Esso plant in Normandy, it should free up supplies and prompt “a real improvement” in the situation at gas stations.

There have been some raised tempers in the long lines for gas, but most station owners have said people are trying to make the best of the situation. Riders were seen pushing scooters and motorcycles, rather than wasting precious fuel, and most drivers seemed more worried about the levels in their tanks than the high cost of the gas.

In Vincennes, just outside Paris, drivers waited in line patiently, hoping their turn would come before the pumps ran dry.

Najat Hakem, 36, said she had already tried several gas stations that day. “Every time, it says they have diesel, and when it’s my turn they run out, because people jump the queue,” she said. “People on scooters, cars like Ubers, they all say they have a valid reason to jump the queue. But I work, too.” 

She said the minimum wait was around an hour. “This is my third attempt; I’ve been up since 6.30 a.m.,” she said.

Odette Libert, 81, said she was in favor of requisitioning the refinery workers and was against the strike.

“This is not acceptable in France, just because a few people want to annoy everyone. It’s their problem, not the problem of all the French people,” she said. “They have jobs, there are many people who can’t get work. If they don’t want to work there, they should leave and go elsewhere. So, requisition.”

Six of France’s seven refineries have been hit by the strikes. Only the Lavera refinery near Marseille was still operating normally on Wednesday. It is one of the largest refining sites in southern Europe, with the capacity to process 210,000 barrels per day.

The war in Ukraine has hit energy supplies in Europe hard, and prices have soared since it began. That, in turn, has pushed inflation higher and raised the general cost of living. Inflation in France is currently at 5.6%.

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