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Strikes cripple French refineries over pension reforms

March 7, 2023

Striking unions blocked fuel deliveries from refineries across France. Unions have been at loggerheads with Macron's administration over a controversial reform to France's pension system.

CFDT unionists take part in a "filtering operation" at Clesud industrial area in Miramas, southern France, on March 7, 2023.
French unions have vowed to bring the country to a standstill with strikes at refineries blocking fuel transferImage: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images

French labor unions on Tuesday launched major strikes nationwide, in a fresh effort to push against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans.

Unions have vowed to bring the country to a standstill as they battle pension reforms that would push the retirement age up two years and require further years of work to earn a full pension.

Police expect between 1.1 million and 1.4 million people to take to the streets in over 260 locations on Tuesday, the French AFP news agency cited an anonymous source as saying.

Screens display information above empty forecourts and platforms at the Gare de l'Est railway station in Paris, on March 7, 2023.
Strikes also affected France's regional and high-speed train serviceImage: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Strikes are also expected to affect regional and high-speed trains, halting four of the five in operation. Even more critically, refinery workers joined the strike, affecting fuel transfer nationwide.

Protests against the proposed pension reforms have been recurring since the start of the year. The biggest protest saw some 1.27 million people participate on January 31.

More than a million protest against France's pension reform

Where are strikes taking place?

The strikes blocked fuel deliveries from refineries nationwide as of Tuesday morning, according to the hard-line CGT union. The blockage could cause shortages at petrol stations.

The Esso refineries in northern France's Port Jerome and the south's Fos-Sur-Mer joined the Tuesday strike, the CGT announced.

"The strike has begun everywhere... with deliveries blocked from all the refineries this morning," AFP quoted Eric Sellini, branch coordinator for the CGT union, as saying. The union had orchestrated a fuel shortage last autumn by launching a similar blockade.

CGT Trade unionists and employees gather beside the TotalEnergies refinery site, in Gonfreville-l'Orcher, near Le Havre, northwestern France, on October 11, 2022.
The CGT had orchestrated a fuel shortage last autumn by launching a similar blockadeImage: Franck Castel/picture alliance/abaca

Fuel giant TotalEnergies told the Reuters news agency that fuel deliveries at its French sites were halted. Out of the group's 296 agents on sites, 64% were on strike on Tuesday, a group spokesperson said.

Sellini told Reuters that a strike at Normandy's Gonfreville refinery was scheduled to hold until Thursday, whereas another at the Donges refinery in western France would last until Friday.

What is happening with the pension reform plan?

Protests against the pension reform plans have recently intensified, as the controversial bill arrived at the French houses of parliament for inking.

Weeks of debate in the French lower house ended without voting on raising the retirement age. The bill has now moved on to the upper house, with a debate that dragged on until the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The debate is due to resume Tuesday afternoon.

Why are the reform plans controversial?

Reforming the country's pension system was part of  Macron's platform both during the 2017 and 2022 elections.

The president and his administration argue that the reforms are "indispensable" for the pension system's survival. Macron said the pension fund is experiencing a looming deficit that must be dealt with as France's population gets older.

The president has argued that the population would have to work a little more to keep the pension fund in balance. To achieve this, the new system raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.

However, critics insist the government must find alternative ways to finance the pension fund.

They also argue that increasing the years of work in some strenuous, manual labor professions would not be physically possible, as well as unfair, given that these professionals start their careers at an earlier age.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.
Critics insist the government must find other ways to finance the pension fundImage: Daniel Cole/AP/picture alliance

rmt/sms (AFP, Reuters)