France aghast by fuel shortage: Endless queues with police deployed

  • By Al Mayadeen English 
  • Source: Agencies
  • 12 Oct 

Petrol stations in France are running dry after energy employees on strike have disrupted the supply. President Emmanuel Macron has urged for calm in the now anxious government as dissatisfaction grows among motorists, businesses, and others, and the police forces are deployed to impose a cap on French nationals trying to fill up their tanks and to maintain security as mayhem spreads across the country. 

Lines hundreds of meters long snake out from gas stations on Paris’ outskirts. In one instance, a motorist, whose car was already running on empty, cried out, “We’ve been waiting for an hour.”

“The queue hasn’t moved at all. I don’t know what we are supposed to do,” he added.

After trying two more stations, one of which was just across the street, another driver entered the line of vehicles. “I arrived at the same time as everyone else, and then the indicators ushered that there was no more petrol left,” she explained.

Latest events

Fuel shortages are prompting outrage and long queues at gas stations across France, as the 13th day of a strike by TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil employees began on Sunday.

Due to worker strikes, three of France’s six refineries are currently closed, reducing output by 60%, or 740,000 barrels of gasoline per day. The majority of TotalEnergies’ network of over 3,500 petrol stations is out of fuel, accounting for approximately one-third of all stations in the country.

In addition to causing frustration for individual drivers, the shortages have caused havoc for businesses, such as delivery services, medical aid, logistics chains, and taxi companies. “What worries me is [what will happen to] disabled people, because we risk not being there for them if this continues,” said one taxi driver, waiting at a petrol pump in Paris. “I’ve only got half of my reserve tank left.” 

What is happening? 

Over a week ago, the French union CGT called for a strike against TotalEnergies as part of a bigger strike across the French energy sector. Workers are demanding raises in the face of a rising cost of living and surging profits in the energy industry.

TotalEnergies made $5.7 billion in earnings in the second quarter of 2022, up from $2.2 million in the same period in 2021. CGT has advocated for a tax on these gains as well as a 10% pay raise – 7% to account for inflation and 3% for “profit sharing”; demands that have received widespread support from energy workers.

Production at the TotalEnergies refinery in Feyzin, near Lyon, was ongoing, but deliveries had halted. 

CGT representative Pedro Afonso told AFP that “100% of dispatch workers were on strike for the 6 am shift”, adding, “Normally there are 250 to 300 trucks every day and 30 to 50 rail carriages. Now nothing can get out.” 

According to CGT spokesperson Christophe Aubert, 70% of ExxonMobil employees were also on strike. “It’s the same workforce on shift all weekend, so nothing’s going to move and nothing is getting out.”  The strikes that were intended to last just three days were extended because TotalEnergies had at first insisted on wage negotiation in mid-November with an expected average salary increase of 3.5%.

TotalEnergies proposed on Sunday that pay negotiations begin this month if the workers quit their walkout. “TotalEnergies calls on everyone to act responsibly so that the company can supply the French people in the best possible conditions,” TotalEnergies said in a statement. One of the CGT’s main requests is that the yearly pay negotiations be held ahead of schedule.

Read next: Massive oil strike in France causing fuel shortages

TotalEnergies has so far downplayed the impact of its worker strike, claiming that supplies are under strain due to the popularity of the company’s low-cost fuel rates in recent months.

Customers have raised demand at TotalEnergies petrol stations by an estimated 30% as a result of the company’s discounts in the face of rising fuel costs.

What to expect

As discontent increases among striking energy employees and motorists, the stakes for the French government rise. “Let’s not panic,” said President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, as he called for calm on all sides. Even as he called for an end to the strikes, the President acknowledged that Total executives should consider the “legitimate compensation requests” of its employees.

Their demands come as the expense of living continues to rise. During the same news conference, President Macron warned of challenging months ahead for petrol prices, as food prices are expected to rise more.

Is it ‘gilets jaunes’ all over again?

Negotiations over pension reforms between the French government and unions, including CGT, are also set to be contentious in the coming months. However, petrol, in particular, has a special place in the French mentality. “Fuel costs have become synonymous with the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest protesters),” Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham, stated. “The current situation troubles [the government] as a foretaste of problems to come – a potential winter of discontent,” as reported by France24

The Yellow Vest protest movement, spurred by rising gasoline prices in the winter of 2018, saw thousands take to the streets for weeks on end in a show of defiance against the government and President Macron.

Read next: France threatens to force striking workers to return to jobs 

According to Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the minister for energy transition, 90 days’ worth of fuel stockpiles remain. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to initiate conversations between CGT and TotalEnergies, but so far without result. 

Priorities speak in light of fuel shortage

According to government estimates, just 19% of petrol stations are affected, with severe shortages in the north. However, Dominique Schelcher, head of the Système U retail chain, told FranceInfo radio that the government number underestimated the impact.

“Only the west [of France] will have fuel stocks,” he said, adding that “it was impossible to order” fuel in the north, east, and south of France for this weekend. 

Not everyone waiting in line is allowed to fill up their cars as French police appear to check fuel tanks before allowing vehicles to move forward to fill up their cars, according to one local news outlet. 

Reuters reported that France has been forced to draw on its strategic petroleum stockpiles to supply petrol stations. According to Reuters, government spokesperson Olivier Veran advised people not to panic. “We are obviously monitoring very, very closely this situation together with the operators and, here and there when it was necessary, we have used our strategic stocks to enable the stations to be supplied,” Veran reportedly said.

Other local governments are taking steps to limit who can buy fuel, with officials in Hauts-de-France, according to Reuters, barring the sale of gasoline and diesel in portable containers.

Chaos making government anxious

Gas station supply problems in France are causing increasingly chaotic occurrences.

A group of teenagers raided a gas station on Monday in Paris’s Val-d’Oise department and sold fuel under their own terms. Several outraged motorists alerted police after the youngsters grabbed possession of the TotalEnergies petrol station.

According to local media sources, the teens charged inhabitants of the region the standard price for fuel while charging individuals from other locations a higher price. At the scene, police apprehended a man in his twenties and are looking for another person who robbed the petrol station and fled.

Despite the government’s demand to terminate the ongoing refinery strikes, employees voted to keep them running on Tuesday.

Further strike action is expected in the coming days, creating further unrest in the now anxious country.