PARIS — Strikers staged rallies across France on Tuesday to demand higher wages in response to rising inflation, fueling a protest by refinery workers that emptied gas stations and caused headaches to millions of motorists.
The strike caused less traffic disruption than expected, although unions have announced further action against President Emmanuel Macron in the coming weeks, including over a hotly contested pension reform.
“Too bad it had to be blocked for anything to happen,” said Nadine, a 45-year-old steelworker who was among more than 1,000 protesters in Strasbourg, northeastern France.
“But today, if we don’t block anything, nobody listens,” she said.
Among a crowd of around 1,800 protesters in the southern city of Montpellier, Magali Mallet, a medical secretary, said she was there because many workers were “living on the edge”.
The Interior Ministry said 107,000 people took part in protests across the country, including 13,000 in Paris, an estimate much lower than the 70,000 reported by the CGT union.
Anti-capitalist ‘Black Bloc’ protesters also joined the demonstration in the capital, spraying graffiti and smashing the windows of a bank and a BMW dealership before being dispersed by riot police.
According to the ministry, 11 people were arrested in Paris and nine officers were injured in clashes with protesters, while four others were arrested elsewhere.
The broader strike came after workers at several oil refineries and depots owned by energy giant TotalEnergies voted to extend work walkouts, which are now in their third week.
The blockages have severely disrupted fuel distribution across the country, particularly in northern and central France and the Paris region.
“We are aiming for a 10% salary increase. As the cost of living and energy costs rise, we need it – there are more and more working poor,” Laurent Léger, 59, said during the Paris march.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said less than a quarter of petrol stations across the country were experiencing shortages, down from 30% previously.
Her government used requisition powers to sack some of the workers at the tank farms, a move that angered unions but has so far been upheld by the courts.
But officials are also urging bosses to honor wage demands, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin saying on Tuesday there was “a wage problem” in France and urging employers to “raise wages to the extent possible”.
Workers have also been on strike in the nuclear power sector, which could hamper efforts to shut down reactors for maintenance or safety work.
The network operator RTE warned on Tuesday that “any broadening of the social movement” in nuclear power plants will have “serious consequences” on the supply of electricity this winter.
Macron said last week that only 30 of 56 nuclear reactors are online, while the country hopes to have 45 operational by January.
But French state energy supplier EDF said on Saturday it was postponing plans to restart five of the shut down reactors.
Beyond transport and other public sector workers, unions hoped to attract workers in sectors such as food and health.
The Ministry of Education said less than 6% of its workers had dropped out of school, although the rate was as high as 23% for vocational schools.
The strike could herald a tense fall and winter as Macron also seeks to implement his flagship domestic policy of raising France’s retirement age to 64 or 65 from the current 62.
The economic bottleneck, caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the failure of Macron’s party to secure an outright majority in the June general election, could also spark public anger.
According to a survey by the Elabe group, one in three French people would be ready to take part in a strike or a demonstration in the coming weeks to demand wage increases in the face of rising inflation.
- Editor/ additional report by AFP