Strikes by energy workers hit French fuel supplies

Strikes by energy sector workers are beginning to wreak havoc on French fuel and power supplies, with petrol stations that slashed prices at the pump in recent weeks hit hard as they struggle with runaway demand and low stocks.

The fuel shortages have been the most acute in northern France, where one major TotalEnergies storage facility is at a standstill as workers demand higher wages to cope with inflation.

Local authorities said on Thursday they had obtained access to strategic fuel stocks to ease the situation as huge queues formed outside petrol stations and some ran dry. They have also banned the sale of petrol and diesel in jerry cans.

But strains are being felt elsewhere in the country too, and have exposed the limits of government efforts to contain the fallout from an energy crisis ravaging Europe.

Workers across several industries, including at oil refineries and at beleaguered nuclear power operator EDF, are staging walkouts to push for higher salaries. Meanwhile, the government sought to shield consumers from rising living costs by spending €7.5bn on fuel subsidies this year and leaning on Total to make additional discounts — but that has now added to the scramble at some gas stations.

Drivers are now rushing to refill at Total forecourts, causing huge gridlocks from the roads of Paris to north-east France close to the border with Belgium, where people have been crossing to refuel at better rates. The prefect’s office in the Hauts-de-France region asked people to refrain from panic buying on Thursday, to help essential services fill up.

“I’ve had several phone calls from nurses asking if it’s possible for us to give them priority access to fuel,” Bruno Vandeville, the mayor of Arleux, a town near Lille, told France 3 TV.

Total said demand at its forecourts had risen 30 per cent since last month. The group said it does not lack fuel stocks, even though some 60 per cent of France’s refining capacity has been affected by stoppages. Two Total refineries have been disrupted by industrial action and it has had to resort to imports.

Benjamin Salvino, a representative for the hard-left CGT at the Total depot near Dunkirk, said a strike there that began on September 27 would continue until pay negotiations moved, despite the shortages and long queues at gas stations.

“It’s complicated even for us, we’re struggling to refuel too. But we have to defend ourselves,” Salvino said.

Total workers are demanding a 10 per cent pay rise. Inflation in the country peaked at a record level in July, at an EU-harmonised rate of 6.8 per cent, before falling back in August and September, and France has fared better than most of its neighbours.

That is largely due to government efforts to cap electricity and gas price rises since the beginning of 2022, with power bills limited to 4 per cent rises in a bid to shield consumers and very small companies from soaring wholesale costs.

Workers at state-controlled EDF also walked out on Thursday over pay. That hit roughly 4 per cent of its total nuclear production and four of its reactors, just as the group is under pressure to increase its faltering output.

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