World News

French refinery strike loses traction as gas stations keep fuel flowing

By Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) – A strike at French oil refineries hit shipments of oil products on Wednesday but did not disrupt traffic on the roads as oil companies and the government kept fuel flowing to gas stations.

At the end of the second day of a four-day strike by workers at oil refineries over government pension reforms, less than 2% of France’s 11,000 petrol stations had run out of fuel, petroleum lobby UFIP said.

The strike action is part of national protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans, which has seen a month-long strike on the national rail and Paris metro systems and comes ahead of a fourth day of major demonstrations on Thursday.

Oil industry specialists said police action to unblock picketing at fuel depots and action taken by oil companies to manage oil reservoirs has prevented a repeat of 2010, when a refinery strike against then president Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform plans lead to widespread fuel shortages nationwide.

An official at UFIP said that following the 2010 and earlier strikes at refineries, France’s logistics and regulatory chain had been made more robust, making it harder for unions to twist the government’s arm by squeezing fuel supply.

“The government has learned that as soon as an oil depot is blockaded, it has to send police to intervene,” oil industry expert Jean-Louis Schilansky said.

Market leader Total said less than 5% of staff at its four refineries were on strike and there was no risk of fuel shortages. ExxonMobil also said disturbances were limited at its plants.

Crucially, truckers did not take part in the strike, as the government has already confirmed they can keep their rights to early retirement.

“Without the truckers, it is hard to bring France to a halt,” said Jacques Percebois, a professor at Montpellier University.

Oil companies said that although trucks and pipelines were blocked by striking workers, refineries continued to operate, storing their output in onsite tanks.

Industry specialists say that if the strike were to continue into next week, some refineries may have to shut down as their capacity to store output is limited.

Union leaders said it was to soon to comment on a possible extension of the strike.

The government also has strategic stocks worth three months of consumption and can rely on increasing imports, as France already imports half of the diesel it needs.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Susan Fenton)