Sarkozy backs France's troubled oil refineries
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government wants Total to make commitments not to close its refining operations in the coming yearsParis – President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered French oil giant Total not to shut its refineries Tuesday, intervening in an industrial row over jobs in the troubled sector weeks ahead of regional elections.
He summoned Total's chief executive Christophe de Margerie as the company sat down with unions to seek a way out of an open-ended strike by refinery workers that has caused fuel pumps in France to run dry.
"The government wants Total to make commitments not to close its refining operations in the coming years," government spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters after Sarkozy met Margerie on Tuesday.
After nine hours of negotiations between Total and the unions, the CGT union called for a suspension of the strike, saying "significant advances" had been obtained during the meeting, although not all unions agreed.
The two parties reached a "summary of the conclusions" that would now be presented to the unions for signature.
Charles Foulard, representing the majority CGT union at the talks said the text "created conditions for a suspension of the strike".
However, another union Sud, majority at the Dunkirk refinery, said it would not suspend the strike at this site.
The general assembly of workers will meet in each refinery Wednesday at midday to decide whether to suspend the strike or carry on, the CGT said.
Sarkozy's government has vaunted his plans to take the lead in European efforts to cut harmful gas emissions, by introducing a "carbon tax" that would reward use of cleaner fuels and, presumably, reduce fuel demand.
But after promising to bring down unemployment which has soared in the economic downturn, he also pressured Total to safeguard jobs even as oil majors seek to shift away from costly and polluting refining as the market changes.
The French economic daily La Tribune on Tuesday said the government was pressuring the company to safeguard refinery jobs ahead of the elections despite encouraging people to reduce their fuel consumption.
"If petrol is no longer selling in France it is because everything has been done to reduce consumption in the name of ecology," the paper said.
It also pointed out long-standing measures favouring diesel fuel, which is taxed less highly than petrol in France and is commonly used in cars there.
Drivers have been rushing to fill up their tanks this week to avoid running out during the mid-term school holiday. Total said that 249 of its 2,600 Elf service stations in France had run out of at least one fuel product.
Sarkozy is bracing for tough elections for regional councils next month, seen as a gauge of popularity for a president slipping in the opinion polls.
Unions have warned fuel could run short in days unless management meets their demands to keep its refineries going, especially one in Dunkirk, northwestern France, which it has not ruled out closing.
Charles Foulard told reporters that Total had promised not to close any other refineries over the next five years.
But another union official, who asked not to be named, said this promise did not apply to the Dunkirk site at the heart of the current dispute. Oil majors worldwide are facing cuts and restructuring.
"The global refining situation today is not good," said Colette Lewiner, an energy expert at the French global consultancy Cap Gemini. "At all the oil majors, refining activities are losing money."
AFP / Expatica