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French strike threatens to choke off petrol pumps

Paris – French filling stations started to run dry on Monday as striking refinery workers sought to choke off the fuel supply to force oil giant Total to guarantee their jobs.

With families hitting the road for the half-term holiday, unions warned petrol could run short within days thanks to strikes at Total’s six refineries, which the firm says supply about half of France’s fuel depots.

In the western town of Rennes, AFP reporters saw some filling stations closed and cars queuing at others. Stations were also shut in the southern city of Toulouse and others were crowded in towns such as Brest and Nantes.

The government moved to calm fears of shortages, but unions cranked up threats that their open-ended action, now in its sixth day, could halt supply.

"I call on all consumers to create a shortage, to go and fill up their tanks, in order to stop the strike lasting too long," a local leader of the CGT union, Marcel Croquefer, told striking refinery workers in Dunkirk.

"Shortages are what make the decision-makers afraid."

On Friday, Total’s management began to halt refining due to the stoppage, launched in protest at the mothballing of the Dunkirk refinery, which employs 370 people directly and 450 sub-contractors.

Dunkirk has been on strike for six weeks and Total’s other five refineries were also expected to wind down one by one over the coming days.

"We have already caused a shortage of diesel, and the filling station opposite the refinery has run out of diesel," said Franck Manchon, a CGT representative at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris.

The CGT has also called for a strike at the two refineries in France run by ExxonMobil, the biggest US oil company, to support the Total workers.

Industry Minister Christian Estrosi said Monday there would be no shortages. "The government will take measures so that France will not get stuck," he insisted during a radio interview.

Total said in a statement that "measures have been taken to ensure there is no risk of shortages" and that it was still talking to the unions. It plans a full formal works committee meeting on the issue at the end of March.

But unions have warned that petrol could run short within days.

"We strongly fear that next week, fuel shortages will be on the agenda," said CGT union representative Charles Foulard, who walked out of talks with Total management on Sunday.

Total has insisted it will not close the Dunkirk plant permanently, nor any other refineries, nor cut any jobs.

But it has not promised to maintain Dunkirk’s refining activity, setting the stage for tough negotiations on the restructuring of jobs at the site.

The French Petroleum Industry Union said on Friday the country’s depots had only between 10 and 20 days’ worth of fuel.

The company says it must adapt to falling demand due to the economic crisis and a shift towards cleaner energy.

It posted a 44-percent year-on-year drop in profits in 2009 due to falling prices, but has vowed to keep investing, eyeing partnerships with China and gas projects in Iran.

"Things have changed drastically in this business," its chief executive Christophe de Margerie said in an interview in the weekly Journal du Dimanche.

AFP / Expatica