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Dry Gas Pumps Become Strategic Focus for French Unions

A service station near Place de la Madeleine in central Paris had been Daniel Dayan’s last hope.

“It’s a nightmare,” the lawyer said, as he drove past the emptied diesel pump, resigned to taking a taxi to the airport.

For Dayan and countless other French people, the strikes and protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 have meant serpentine lines at gas stations.

Unlike in the 1990s when strikes paralyzed France, a limited impact from efforts to disrupt trains, planes and schools has led unions to strategically focus their attention on oil and gas supplies to get the attention of the government.

France’s 11 active refineries remain on strike and about 40 percent of the country’s 12,000 service stations have run out of some oil products. Striking port workers are blocking crude imports while oil industry union members are barricading some of the country’s 213 fuel depots, crippling distribution networks and leading to shortages as vehicle owners stock up.

The labor action, led by the Confederation Generale du Travail, the biggest union among refinery, port, gas and power workers, has prompted police to break up barricades at fuel depots. Sarkozy today called for the removal of blockades at all fuel depots in the country. The government is ordering workers back on the job at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris.

“It’s not a coincidence that it’s the energy supply centers that are paralyzed,” said Bernard Vivier, director of Paris-based researcher Superior Institute of Labor. “The bastions of CGT power lie at centers of production. The ideology to take control of the economy comes from historic ties with the Communist Party.”

‘Irresponsible’

French power prices jumped to their highest since January 2009 after strikers today and yesterday cut output at Electricite de France SA’s nuclear reactors. Gasoline in Europe’s oil-trading hub of Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp have risen 11 percent since the French port strike began.

Energy and ports workers in the CGT are more “radical” than the union’s leader Bernard Thibault, Vivier said. “The CGT leadership has lost control of certain sectors.”

The radicalized elements are turning into a major headache for the government.

“I have ordered blockades to be lifted at all fuel depots so we can get back to normal,” Sarkozy said in a statement today. “If they don’t end soon, this chaos could paralyze the country and affect jobs as well as hurting economic activity.”

Police ended blockades of three depots in western France this morning, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

‘Not Waning’

“We are in a confrontational mode,” said Emmanuel Lepine, federal secretary of the CGT’s petrochemicals branch. “There are no talks on with the government. The determination of workers is not waning. Refinery workers may be in the forefront, but we aren’t isolated.”

The CGT has redoubled fund-raising efforts in recent days for a fund to support strikers, according to Lepine.

French oil companies will share supplies and transport to combat shortages, said Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of refiners’ group Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, which represents oil companies including Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp. The cost of the strike at the Marseille oil terminals alone is more than 100 million euros ($138 million), he said.

“It will take four to five days to get back to normal,” Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said today. “There’s a bit of a cat and mouse game going on at the depots but we will restore the situation.”

Weak Strikes

The focus on the energy industry also highlights the weakness of strikes in other sectors. While the protests are backed by 67 percent of respondents in a poll by Viavoice conducted on Oct. 14 and 15, fewer workers are willing to forgo a day’s pay, union membership has lost its allure and shutting down the country isn’t popular.

Yesterday was the fourth national strike and the sixth day of protest in two months against the pension bill, which raises the age for a full pension to 67 from 65. French senators will vote as soon as tomorrow on Sarkozy’s retirement plan.

While the demonstrations yesterday brought about 1.1 million people to the streets across France, the Labor Ministry said only 7.4 percent of government workers, excluding education, were on strike, down from 18.6 percent on Oct. 12.

In December 1995 and November 2007, French unions brought all transport and public services to a standstill for more than a week. Yesterday, metros in Paris ran normally.

Strategic Industry

The current strike is the second this year led by Charles Foulard, the CGT representative at Total’s six French refineries. Foulard, in his trademark red beanie, spearheaded a week-long walkout in February at Total refineries over the oil company’s plan to shut its crude processing plant near Dunkirk.

The February labor action threatened fuel shortages and ended only after intervention from Sarkozy and a pledge from Total not to close any more refineries in France for five years.

The CGT’s port workers’ and energy and mines’ branches have also led strikes in recent years at the oil terminals of the port of Marseille as well as Electricite de France SA, with walkouts at French nuclear plants last year.

“It’s a low blow because we are a strategic industry,” the UFIP’s Schilansky said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tara Patel in Paris at tpatel2@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Will Kennedy at wkenned3@bloomberg.net

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