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Protesters march in Paris as French refinery strikes continue

Three weeks into a refinery strike that has caused fuel shortages across France, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Paris on Sunday to express their frustration at the rising cost of living.

The demonstration was called by the left-wing political opposition and led by the head of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Security forces fired teargas and launched baton charges on several occasions after they were pelted with objects, while on the fringes of the march, masked men dressed in black ransacked a bank.

Some protesters wore yellow florescent vests, the symbol of the often violent anti-government protests in 2018 that shook the pro-business government of President Emmanuel Macron.

“It’s time to wake up”, said Christopher Savidan, an LFI activist out of work for five years.

“The people at the top are out of touch. We pay taxes — we don’t know why. Everything is going down the drain.”

Opponents of Macron are hoping to build on the momentum created by the refinery dispute, which began at the end of September.

“We’re going to have a week the likes of which we don’t see very often,” Melenchon told the crowd.

“Everything is coming together. We are starting it with this march, which is an immense success.”

– General strike call –

Melenchon also called for a “general strike” on Tuesday.

Several French unions, but not all, have already declared the date a national day of strikes targetting road transport, trains and the public sector.

Organisers claimed 140,000 people attended Sunday’s march, but police said there were 30,000. A count by the organisation Occurrence for news media — including AFP — put the figure at 29,500.

The strikes and protests are being closely watched by the government, which is aiming to pass a highly controversial change to the pensions system in the next few months.

Macron, who won re-election in April, has pledged to push back the retirement age from 62, with the reform scheduled before the end of the winter.

“I’m really worried,” one ruling party MP told AFP last week on condition of anonymity. “We need to find a route between the need for reforms and the fact that people are riled up and tired.”

– ‘Unacceptable’ –

Four of France’s seven refineries — all belonging to Paris-based energy group TotalEnergies — remained blocked on Sunday.

The French company announced on Friday that it had reached a pay deal with the two largest unions representing staff at its refineries, raising hopes of an end to the standoff.

But the hardline CGT union has refused to accept it, with its members continuing to maintain picket lines.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told TF1 television on Sunday evening that if the situation remained tense Monday, then the authorities would proceed with more requisitions, forcing striking workers back to their posts.

About 30 percent of service stations were experiencing supply problems for one type of fuel or another, she said. “That’s too many.”

Earlier Sunday, Budget Minister Gabriel Attal denounced the continuation of the strike as “unacceptable”, while business lobby group Medef said “150 people” were “taking the country hostage.”

Staff at two other refineries owned by the US group Esso-ExxonMobil returned to work at the end of last week, but operations there will need at least a fortnight to return to normal, the company said.

– Huge profits –

Currently, with around a third of petrol stations across the country experiencing supply problems, drivers are often waiting hours to refuel.

Many companies have cut back on travel and deliveries, and even emergency service vehicles face shortages.

The huge profits made by energy groups due to record fuel prices have led to some sympathy for employees pushing for higher wages.

But a poll by the BVA polling group released Friday suggested that only 37 percent of people supported the stoppages.

Sunday’s Paris march and rally, although called by Melenchon’s party, was backed by its coalition allies — the Greens, Socialists and Communists.

Recent Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux and another 60 figures from the arts and public life had also called for people to join the march in a joint letter.