Fuel shortage in France causes frustration among motorists and government anxiety

Petrol pumps run dry in France as striking energy workers disrupt deliveries. As frustration mounts among motorists, businesses and beyond, President Emmanuel Macron has called for calm.

Friday morning, a queue several hundred meters long snaked from a gas station in the Paris suburbs.

“We’ve been waiting for an hour,” says a motorist whose car was already driving empty. “The queue has not moved at all. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.

Another driver joined the line of vehicles after trying two more stations, including one just across the street. “I arrived at the same time as everyone else, then the signs showed that there was no more petrol,” she said.

Fuel shortages are hitting service stations across France, causing frustration and long waits for motorists, as a strike by TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil workers enters its 12th day.

Three out of six refineries are currently closed in France due to workers’ strikes which have reduced production by 60%, or the equivalent of 740,000 barrels of oil per day. The majority of TotalEnergies’ network, which has around 3,500 service stations, or almost a third of all service stations in the country, has run out of fuel.

Government figures estimate that only 19% of service stations are affected, with particular shortages in the north. But the president of the Système U chain of stores, Dominique Schelcher, told FranceInfo radio that the government figure had underestimated the disruption.

“Only the west [of France] will have fuel stocks,” he said, adding that “it was impossible to order” fuel in the north, east and south of France for this weekend.

As well as causing frustration among individual drivers, the shortages have thrown businesses – including delivery services, medical assistance, supply chains and taxi companies – into chaos.

“What worries me is [what will happen to] people with disabilities, because we may not be there for them if this continues,” said a taxi driver, waiting at a gas station in Paris. “I only have half my reserve tank left.”

“Nothing Can Come Out”

The French CGT union called a strike against TotalEnergies more than a week ago as part of a wider action in the French energy sector.

Workers are demanding wage increases amid a cost of living crisis and soaring profits in the energy sector.

In the second quarter of 2022, TotalEnergies recorded profits of $5.7 billion compared to $2.2 million during the same period in 2021.

The CGT demanded a tax on these profits and a 10% – 7% wage increase to counter inflation and 3% “profit sharing”, demands which were widely supported by energy workers.

At the TotalEnergies refinery in Feyzin near Lyon, production work continued but deliveries were at a standstill.

CGT representative Pedro Afonso told AFP that “100% of dispatchers were on strike for the 6am shift”, adding: “Normally there are 250 to 300 trucks a day and 30 to 50 cars. Now nothing can come out.

Some 70% of ExxonMobil workers were also on strike, said CGT representative Christophe Aubert. “It’s the same workforce on duty all weekend, so nothing will move and nothing will come out.”

The strikes were originally scheduled to last three days, but almost two weeks later, TotalEnergies is still insisting that wage negotiations begin in mid-November, as planned, with an expected average wage increase of 3.5%.

TotalEnergies played down the impact of its workers’ strike, instead saying supplies are under pressure due to the popularity of the company’s reduced fuel prices in recent months.

Demand at TotalEnergies service stations increased by around 30% as customers took advantage of discounts offered by the company amid rising fuel prices.

“Let’s not panic”

As frustrations rise for striking energy workers and motorists, the stakes also rise for the French government.

“Let’s not panic,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday, as he called for calm from all sides. Yet even as the president called for an end to the strikes, he agreed that Total executives should heed the “legitimate wage demands” of its workers.

Their demands come amid a worsening cost of living crisis. At the same press conference, the president warned of tough months ahead for gasoline prices as food prices are expected to continue to soar.

Negotiations between the French government and unions, including the CGT, on pension reform are also expected to cause tension in the coming months.

Yet essence, in particular, occupies a special place in the French psyche. “Fuel prices are synonymous with yellow vests (Yellow Vest protesters),” said Paul Smith, associate professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham.

“The current troubled situation [the government] as a taste of trouble to come – a potential winter of discontent.

The Yellow Vests protest movement, sparked in the winter of 2018 by rising fuel prices, has seen thousands take to the streets for weeks in defiance of the authorities and President Macron.

>> For the French yellow vests, the fight continues

While government spokesman Olivier Véran avoided referring to a gasoline shortage on Wednesday, citing instead “temporary tensions” affecting supply, the government is taking additional steps to ensure gasoline reaches the pumps.

Fuel tankers will exceptionally be allowed to circulate on Sundays to make deliveries and the government has drawn on its strategic fuel reserves to supplement available stocks.

Currently, there are 90 days of fuel stocks left, said Energy Transition Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher.

In the meantime, efforts are also being made to open discussions between the CGT and TotalEnergies – so far without success.

Further strikes are expected in the coming days.


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