France orders some fuel workers back to work to deal with refinery strike

PARIS, Oct 11 (Reuters) – The French government said on Tuesday it would requisition staff from some petrol depots as it battles to secure petrol supplies after weeks of strike action, setting it on a trajectory of collision with the extremist union CGT as social tensions rise. .

After hesitating at first to interfere in the labor disputes between the intransigent CGT union and the oil majors TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) and Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), the government tried on Tuesday to regain control of the situation, when the first French regions had to start rationing fuel.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced that the government was ready to use force to order staff at depots managed by Exxon’s Esso France unit back to work, with similar measures possible at Total sites if the wage negotiations do not provide a solution.

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The CGT union called the plans “violent” and suspended all ongoing negotiations with the government and employers nationally and in all business sectors – and announced new strikes at the Total refinery in Donges.

Walkouts and unplanned maintenance at refineries run by oil majors TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) and Exxon Mobil have forced more than 60% of French refining capacity offline and blocked distribution from fuel depots .

31% of service stations across the country were struggling with supply problems on Tuesday, leading to rationing in certain regions including the departments of Alpes-Maritimes, Var and Vaucluse in the south.

“We want this situation to change quickly,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told the lower house of parliament, adding that the government was ready to take additional measures if necessary.

“I therefore asked the prefects, to the extent permitted by law, to requisition the personnel necessary for the operation of the company’s depots,” she said in reference to Esso France.

“Orders are ready,” an energy ministry source said, adding that requisitions would only take place if the situation at the depots did not improve.

The source added that the government was already seeing signs of improvement at the Exxon depot at Port Jerome in Normandy and the TotalEnergies depot at Dunkirk in northern France after the Prime Minister’s announcement to use force if necessary.

TotalEnergies said on Wednesday it would offer to hold initial talks with unions not taking part in the strikes, adding that the CGT union was “welcome” if it ended the walkout – a condition the union had firmly rejected as “blackmail” earlier this week.

On the other hand, formal wage negotiations have been underway for a few weeks at Esso France, where management reached an agreement with a majority of unions on Monday – but not with the CGT.

Refinery shutdowns in France are among the longest since the cost of living crisis intensified this year. They caused winding queues at French service stations and sent diesel refining margins to record highs in Europe and the United States.

SHORTAGES

TotalEnergies’ 240,000 barrels per day (bpd) Gonfreville refinery is offline, while refined product deliveries are stuck at the 119,000 bpd Feyzin refinery, which is closed for unscheduled maintenance but is storing fuel, and at the Côte d’Opale and the fuel depots of La Mède.

Two Exxon Mobil refineries have also been shut down since late September.

France increases its imports to cover the production deficit. Diesel imports for the first 10 days of October were 37% higher than for the whole of October last year, said Pamela Munger, senior market analyst at Vortexa.

Esso France said it reached a pay deal with the unions on Monday. Even so, it would take time for supplies to be released, said Transport Minister Clément Beaune.

Esso France said union members CFE-CGC and CFDT, which make up the majority at its sites, had agreed to a 6.5% pay rise in 2023 and a bonus of 3,000 euros ($2,916) . These conditions meant an overall salary increase of 10.7% plus 4,000 euros in bonuses from January 1, 2022 to December 31, 2023, the company added.

The deal is one of the most generous offered to workers in Europe, based on recent wage deals, and may worry companies and policymakers as it sets a precedent.

The CGT said it had not signed the agreement and its workers remained on strike. He wants a 10% raise.

The strikes have exacerbated union discontent with Macron, who this fall delayed a final decision on his contested pension reform plans, wary of frustration over the cost-of-living crisis.

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Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Myriam Rivet, Forrest Crellin and Elizabeth Pineau, Tassilo Hummel and Dominique Vidalon in Paris and Rowena Edwards in London; Written by Richard Lough; Editing by Jane Merriman, Mark Potter, Alexandra Hudson

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