French strike pits workers vs. government as inflation bites

Industries across France went on strike Tuesday to push for pay hikes that keep up with rising inflation, ramping up the clash between workers and the government after weeks of walkouts that hobbled oil refineries and sparked gasoline shortages around the country.

Rail and other transportation workers, trucking and bus companies, some high school teachers and public hospital employees have heeded a call by an oil workers’ union for French industry to push for salary increases and protest government intervention in the refinery strikes. Thousands also took to the streets Sunday to march against rising prices.

Taxi driver Mohamed Mahrouk said he was fed up with both the strikers and the government for failing to reach a deal that officials have promised within a week to end disruptions.

“It’s been two weeks,” Mahrouk said while queuing for fuel at a Paris gas station. “It’s starting to be too long now … a solution needs to be found.”

Meanwhile, just one in two trains were running Tuesday in the southern region rail network, causing delays during morning rush hour. There were reports of disruptions on high-speed trains in the north, as well as on the Eurostar and the inter-city trains linking France with Spain.

Similar protests have erupted around Europe in recent months as people complain about the impact of inflation, causing disruptions like canceled flights and trains. Thousands protested in Prague twice last month partly about high energy prices, airline workers have gone on strike in places like Germany and Sweden for higher pay as inflation rises, and everyone from nurses to rail employees in the United Kingdom have walked off the job to demand their wages keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Tuesday’s protests in France come after the left-wing CGT union rejected a deal over a pay increase that oil giant TotalEnergies struck with two other unions Friday. The CFDT and CFE-CGC unions, which together represent a majority of the group’s French workers, agreed to a 7% pay rise and a financial bonus.

Strikers demanded higher wages from the windfall profits of energy companies that have seen high oil and gas prices as Russia’s war in Ukraine aggravates an energy crisis.

But the CGT rejected the deal, holding out for a 10% pay rise and called on other unions to support their demands, seek their own pay increases and join the protests after the government ordered some workers to return to work.

Long lines of cars have been seen for weeks across France as drivers waited — sometimes for hours — to fill up. Many gas stations have temporarily closed while awaiting deliveries. About 30% of France’s gas stations are experiencing temporary shortages, with the Paris area and northern France most affected.

Samba Cissé, who works as a courier, drove to metropolitan Paris on Tuesday from a suburb in search of gas after the neighborhoods ringing the capital have either dried up or shut down.

“I need petrol to be able to work, it’s as simple as that,” Cissé said.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron is losing patience with strikers, who have gathered support by his political rivals on the left.

After launching requisitions at some refineries to get gas back into tanks, government officials said it plans more as soon as Tuesday. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told broadcaster BFMTV on Monday that “the time for negotiations is over.”

Jacques Forlini, an entrepreneur in Paris, blamed the government for the disruptions of the daily routine saying that fuel shortages are the latest crisis that authorities are unable to resolve.

“The government seems incapable of handling these problems,” Forlini said.

Inflation has risen around the world as economies rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic and then got worse as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent food and fuel prices soaring.

French inflation has hit 6.2%, which is the lowest among the 19 countries that use the euro currency, according to the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat. In comparison, Estonia saw consumer prices soar 24% last month from a year earlier, while the Netherlands’ rate was 17% and the eurozone as a whole was 10%.

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AP reporters Barbara Surk in Nice, France, and Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed.

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