French officials worry refinery strike could morph into unrest
Govt seeks to break strikes before key political march on Sunday
Left-wing opposition hopes to capitalise on streets, parliament
PARIS, Oct 14 (Reuters) - France’s refinery strikes are emboldening hardline unions and the political opposition hoping to ignite a broader movement that could threaten President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda.
After nearly three weeks and petrol stations across the nation starting to run dry, the refinery strikes have triggered calls for more industrial action in other sectors and handed the opposition an opportunity.
The left-wing NUPES parliamentary coalition aims to capitalise on the situation with a march on Sunday it hopes will be a major show of force and help turn the page on domestic violence accusations that have dogged senior members recently.
“The situation is being weaponised, when you mix it all up, you get the march on Sunday. You get the fodder that set the yellow vest fire,” a government source said, referring to months of widespread and sometimes violent street protests in 2018 where demonstrators often wore yellow high-visibility vests.
As fuel shortages began to hit businesses and disrupt people’s everyday lives, the government took the rare step this week of requisitioning a small number of striking refinery workers to keep supplies flowing to the pumps.
Taking a cue from their refinery colleagues, some workers at nuclear power plants have begun staging rolling strikes for higher wages, hitting already record low nuclear energy production.
While polls suggest as many as two-thirds of French people support requisitioning refinery workers, the move is a red flag for unions, which see it as a violation of their constitutional right to strike.
Four unions - but not France’s biggest, the moderate CFDT - have called for strikes and protests on Tuesday for wage increases and also to protect the sacrosanct right to strike.
“From the beginning, the government has downplayed the strike’s impact and underestimated the discontent and this is where we end up,” CGT union head Philippe Martinez said on Friday on television channel franc.
With the social atmosphere increasingly on edge, the situation is hardly any better in the corridors of parliament where the government is struggling to get the 2023 budget passed, having lost its ruling majority in June legislative elections.
In a blow to the government, lawmakers from the left, far-right and even some of Macron’s centrist allies passed an amendment for a dividend tax on large corporations’ windfall profits.
That and other amendments threaten the government’s pro-business programme and leave it little choice but to use constitutional powers to pass legislation by in effect overriding lawmakers.
Opposition parties would likely respond with a motion of no confidence, which would likely fail but would nonetheless be damaging as the government seeks to build bridges for a planned retirement reform. (Reporting by Michel Rose; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Mark Potter)
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