France tapping fuel stocks as strikes cause gas shortages

LE HAVRE, France – French drivers are fuming, oil industry workers are divided, and the government is reaching into its fuel reserves to end gasoline shortages that have heightened the stakes of nationwide protests to defend labour protections.

Unions are targeting the nation’s gas tanks, railroads and electricity network this week, protesting a bill devised to make France more globally competitive by extending the work week and making layoffs easier. Opponents say it will enrich company bosses and won’t create the jobs it promises.

The government says it won’t back down, and has sent riot police to uproot protesters blocking fuel depots and authorized use of reserves to resupply gas stations that had run dry.

Fouad Rharib and his wife spent hours searching for gas before giving up overnight. He found some at last Wednesday morning in Paris — along with a long line.

“Our two cars are on the minimum level of petrol and we need to drive our children to school and to go to work. … it is unacceptable,” he said.

Another customer, Olivier Criq, expressed support for the labour protests but not the fuel strikes.

“I agree with the right to strike, but I don’t agree with the blockade. They can go to block government ministries and the (president’s) Elysee palace. It is not normal that the French people are being held hostage like this,” he said.

France has used three out of 115 days of fuel reserves to deal with the shortages so far, France’s junior minister for transportation acknowledged Wednesday.

Alain Vidalies says about 40 per cent of gas stations in the Paris region have been hit by partial or total shortages. He says 11 fuel depots have been unblocked by police since the protests against the government’s labour policies started last week.

Union members at a major oil terminal in the English Channel port city of Le Havre plan to block imports Thursday as part of broader one-day strikes against the labour bill.

Workers at France’s eight refineries, however, are divided over whether to join the strikes.

The Total refinery and petrochemical complex at Gonfreville-L’Orcher, outside Le Havre, was nearly deserted Wednesday.

About 30 kilometres (18 miles) away, the ExxonMobil refinery in Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon was working normally Wednesday because only a third of employees chose to strike, according to union activists outside. White tankers could still be seen moving across the sprawling complex.

Gerald Le Corre, a 45-year-old government labour inspector who had come from Rouen to show solidarity with the strikers, said the protests were as much against the political status quo as the labour bill.

“There’s no difference between the (right wing) Republicans and the (left wing) Socialists,” he said, as protesters lunched on baguette and pate. “If you remove the labels we just see governments in the service of big business.”

Meanwhile, train drivers also staged a one-day strike Wednesday. The SNCF national rail authority said 25 per cent of high-speed TGV trains were cancelled, and a similar number of regional and commuter trains were affected.

And workers at the country’s nuclear plants — source of most of France’s electricity — also plan to join the one-day strike Thursday.

The CGT union, whose hard-left flank is driving the nationwide strikes, is also threatening to block a reactor at a plant in Nogent-sur-Seine, southeast of Paris, that was shut for technical reasons and is scheduled to be restarted Wednesday.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve insisted that the labour tension won’t jeopardize the upcoming European Championship soccer tournament or the Tour de France cycling race. The tensions have added to concern about security for Europe’s top soccer gathering, which is already facing threats of violent Islamic extremism and hooliganism.


Charlton and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.