France Braces for Potential Halt of Oil Refineries Amid Strike

  • Workers will vote Friday on whether to strike at eight plants
  • Gasoline shortages already affecting some parts of country

France is bracing for a possible interruption of operations at its refineries Friday in an escalation of union protests against labor-law changes that have already disrupted the country’s fuel supplies.

Union members from the Confederation Generale du Travail will vote at around noon Friday on whether to stop work at the nation’s oil refineries, said Emmanuel Lepine, the union’s representative for the oil industry. Protesting workers have already disrupted truck shipments from fuel depots, causing shortages in northern France, he said. Prime Minister Manuel Valls threatened Thursday to use police to lift the blockades.

The strike vote comes as France faces protests against President Francois Hollande’s decision to bypass the lower house of parliament as he forced through changes to labor laws -- reducing extra pay for overtime and making it easier to fire staff in some cases. While the government has watered down the legislation since it was first proposed in February, unions are calling for it to be dropped altogether.

So far no refinery has been halted in France, but blockades at distribution depots have caused fuel shortages, notably in Normandy, Brittany and the Pays de Loire region, Lepine said. He predicted shortages Thursday evening or Friday morning in the Paris area.

Total SA, Europe’s largest refiner, operates five refineries in France out of a total of eight across the country. The last time all its plants were halted was in December 2013 for a week in a dispute over wages, according to Thierry Defresne, a CGT union member in the refining unit at Total SA.

Total didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The company said Wednesday that there were no major fuel-supply risks in France resulting from the protests.

Total’s refineries aren’t the only ones affected. The entrance to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s plant at Port Jerome-Gravenchon in the region of Le Havre, Normandy, is currently blocked, but the refinery’s units are working as normal, according to spokeswoman Catherine Brun. The facility processes 239,000 barrels of oil a day, according to the company.

“The comments from Manuel Valls on the blockades this morning reinforce the desire for confrontation, rather than a peaceful lifting of the blockades,” Defresne said. “He’s adding fuel to the fire.”

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