Americans heading to France this week are urged to think twice before renting a car…because the country is running out of gas.
For the past two weeks, France’s General Confederation of Labor union has been locked in a bitter stalemate with fuel giants TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil in a dispute over its members’ pay.
Dozens of workers from several oil refineries belonging to the multinationals have walked out, blockaded several refineries and blocked the supply of gasoline; as a result, more than a quarter of filling stations are now out of at least one type of fuel and 19% are completely dry.
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The standoff has become so tense that the French government intervened on Wednesday, issuing emergency powers in a bid to order workers back to work.
The government said the recall of essential fuel workers at the blocked Port Jerome refinery in Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon, Normandy, would begin on Wednesday. However, the move risks deepening the crisis, amid fears it could inspire other sectors to join the strike in solidarity with striking fuel workers.
At midday, out of more than 11,100 service stations in France, 2,093 had run out of fuel and 1,101 had run out of one type of fuel, the British Automobile Association reported on Wednesday afternoon.
Long queues are reportedly winding around petrol pumps across the country as frustrated motorists try to fill up before the country’s fuel network runs out.
Visitors planning to drive to France in the coming days have been warned to refuel before crossing the country (if possible). They are also advised to use eco-driving techniques such as moderating their speed and inflating their tires (see below).
When could the strikes end?
The end of the strike will depend on how quickly the General Confederation of Labor and TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil can come back to the table and reach an agreement.
Two weeks ago, workers at TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil refineries and fuel depots walked off the job over a wage dispute. They implemented lockdowns at several refineries, forcing more than 60% of France’s refining capacity – or 740,000 barrels a day – offline.
Union leaders are demanding pay rises to help workers cope with soaring inflation as Europe grapples with one of its worst cost of living crises in decades.
Related: Here’s how to travel in France right now and what it looks like once you arrive
It had been hoped the dispute would die down on Sunday as TotalEnergies, one of the world’s largest energy multinationals, agreed to advance wage talks in return for workers returning to service. The union, however, refused, accusing the management of “blackmail”.
In a bid to prevent a race to the country’s pumps, the French government has assured drivers it is doing everything possible to reach an agreement with the fuel unions. Speaking during a visit to Mayenne, western France, President Emmanuel Macron said: “Negotiations are ongoing and on the right track… I hope that in the next few hours, at the sooner it can be resolved. Blocking is not a way to negotiate.”
Then, surprise, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced the decision to requisition the workers operating the gas depots of the French subsidiary Esso of ExxonMobil and threatened to do the same for those of the TotalEnergies group if an agreement was not reached. not found quickly. She did not give a time frame for this request.
“A wage disagreement does not justify the blocking of the country,” she said, adding: “I asked the prefects to launch the procedure for requisitioning the workers essential to operation. [of the Esso fuel depots].”
The union responded by calling the plans “violent” and suspending all ongoing negotiations with the government and employers.
In response, TotalEnergies said it would offer to hold initial talks with unions not involved in the strikes. The General Confederation of Trade Unions will only be “welcome” at the table if it ends the walkouts, he added. The union called it “blackmail”.
How to save fuel while driving in France?
The UK Automobile Association offers several essential techniques for saving fuel while driving. They understand:
- Drive at high speed, while respecting the speed limit.
- Avoid using air conditioning or heating.
- Make sure the tires are inflated to the recommended pressure.
- Use cruise control (if your car has it) whenever possible.
- Lighten the load of the car.
- Leave more space between you and the vehicle in front of you to reduce braking and acceleration.
Such techniques can easily save the equivalent of 38 cents per gallon, according to the AA.
The organization also reminded drivers that a full tank will last an average of around 350 miles.