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Striking French refinery workers defy government threats

Striking French oil refinery employees voted Wednesday to maintain blockades for a third week, despite a government order for some of them to return to work in a bid to get fuel supplies flowing.

The industrial action in pursuit of pay hikes has paralysed six of the seven fuel refineries in France, leading to shortages of petrol and diesel exacerbated by panic-buying drivers.

But President Emmanuel Macron vowed in a television interview that things would return to normal “in the coming week”.

Having previously threatened to use emergency powers to order essential workers back on pain of fines or jail time, the government announced Wednesday it was putting them into action.

Officials said an Esso-Exxon-Mobil fuel depot in northwest France and another belonging to TotalEnergies in the northeast would be the first where workers are “requisitioned”.

Long queues of motorists desperately seeking fuel again clogged streets in Paris and other major cities.

As of Tuesday evening, 31 percent of stations across the country lacked at least one grade of fuel. In the greater Paris region, that figure stood at 44 percent.

Esther Berrebi, a home health aide in the capital, was trying her third station since 7:00 am (0500 GMT).

“I’m very angry, and very worried,” she told AFP. “I understand they want higher salaries, but I don’t understand how they can halt an entire country.”

Speaking to broadcaster France 2, Macron warned managers that “it’s important to get back around the table and talk”.

“We can’t allow the country to be blocked because a few people always want to take things further even when a deal has been reached” between bosses and some of the unions, he said.

– Growing frustration –

The hard-left CGT union leading the stoppages said Tuesday any requisitioning would be “not necessary and illegal”, raising the prospect of legal challenges.

It is seeking a 10 percent pay rise for staff at TotalEnergies, retroactive for all of 2022, and says management has refused to hold talks.

“It would have been easier to requisition our CEO and bring him to the negotiating table,” said Germinal Lancelin, the CGT leader for ExxonMobil at the Gravenchon-Port-Jerome refinery.

Earlier on Wednesday, TotalEnergies said it would meet all union representatives, having previously insisted it would meet only those who accepted the end of the blockades.

“We’ll see what management puts on the table, but this is a first step,” said Antoine Lopez, 50, enjoying a barbecue with colleagues at a picket outside the Feyzin refinery in eastern France.

CGT’s branch inside the company said bosses had agreed to drop its demand for an end to the refinery strike before opening wage talks, but were still insisting fuel deliveries should resume.

CGT representative Thierry Defresne told AFP late Wednesday the striking workers rejected the demand for deliveries to restart early Thursday.

“We consulted those striking and it is a strong unequivocal refusal, they don’t want this requirement to negotiate,” Defresne said.

TotalEnergies confirmed the “negative outcome of the discussions”.

– ‘General strike’ –

Until now, the government had been reluctant to inflame the conflict, but in recent days, officials have had to acknowledge the growing frustration and economic damage caused by drivers spending hours trying to fill their tanks.

“Petrol is too important for us. It’s been a nightmare for a week,” Santiago, a delivery driver, told AFP in Paris.

Even if key personnel are ordered back to work, “it will take at least two weeks” to restore fuel supplies, said Gil Villard, a CGT representative for Esso at the Fos-sur-Mer refinery outside Marseille, in the southeast.

At a time of high energy prices and inflation, TotalEnergies’ bumper profits have caused anger, leading to calls for a windfall tax.

The standoff could invigorate a march planned by left-wing political parties on Sunday against the policies of President Macron and the high cost of living.

“I hope this is the spark that begins a general strike,” leading Greens party parliamentarian Sandrine Rousseau told Franceinfo radio on Wednesday.

The industrial action comes as Macron is preparing to push through a contentious pension overhaul by the end of the winter, despite warnings from some allies about the risk of widespread resistance.

Labour unions and left-wing political parties have vowed to try to block the reform, which would see the pension age raised to 64 or 65 for most people, up from 62 currently.