French strike pits workers vs. government as inflation bites

PARIS (AP) — Tens of thousands of French workers took to the streets Tuesday across the country, striking for pay hikes that keep up with rising inflation. The industrial action came after weeks of walkouts that have hobbled French oil refineries and sparked gasoline shortages around the country.

“It’s time to go back to work,” French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Tuesday about people on strike in the French refineries of oil giant TotalEnergies.

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 to push for salary increases and protest government intervention in the refinery strikes.

According to the Interior Ministry, over 100,000 people marched Tuesday in multiple protests in French cities. Thousands also took to the streets Sunday to march against rising prices.

Retired social security employee Bernard Mirc, 70, who participated in the Paris protest, said

“We are demanding an increase in salaries everywhere. In all jobs, in all professions, because we now find ourselves with employees who are underpaid in relation to the cost of living,” said retiree Bernard Mirc, 70, who participated in the Paris protest.

Meanwhile, just one in two trains were running Tuesday in the southern region rail network, causing delays during morning rush hour. There were also 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 over 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 like Germany and Sweden to demand higher pay and in the U.K., everyone from nurses to rail employees have walked off the job to demand their wages keep pace with inflation.

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 urging that the protests continue.

The CGT’s secretary general, Philippe Martinez, said “our demands are more than ever on the agenda, the question of salaries. We see that this is the No. 1 priority of the French.”

“Inflation affects all workers in Europe,” Martinez added. “We can see that the profits of big companies are exploding and that employees are being told their pay cannot be increased, that there is no money. So this anger is widespread in Europe”.

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is losing patience with strikers, who are backed by his political rivals on the left.

Borne, speaking Tuesday at the National Assembly, said “negotiations led to the signature of agreements” with majority unions both at TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil’s French branch Esso, where workers ended their strike last week.

“Therefore, it is not acceptable that a minority continues to block the country,” she said.

Borne said about 25% of France’s gas stations are experiencing temporary shortages.

She noted a “clear improvement” of the situation in northern France, where 18.5% of gas stations are now disrupted, down from 55% last week. She said the situation also improved in the Paris region over the past 24 hours.

Samba Cissé, who works as a courier, drove to Paris on Tuesday from a suburb in search of gas.

“I need petrol to be able to work, it’s as simple as that,” Cissé 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 Masha Macpherson, Oleg Cetinic and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

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