Why are workers striking and protesting across France?

Thousands have taken to the streets across France, as tensions rise between workers and the government.

Protester offering a red rose to police who have their shields up
Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across France, as transportation workers, and some high school teachers and public hospital employees went on strike [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Thousands of people have taken to the streets across France and commuters faced delays as unions staged a nationwide strike for higher salaries, following weeks of walkouts that have hobbled oil refineries and sparked petrol shortages around the country.

Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across France on Tuesday as transportation workers, and some high school teachers and public hospital employees, went on strike.

Here is what we know about the unrest:

Why are people protesting?

  • Protesters and strikers are demanding pay rises that keep up with the soaring cost of living as France experiences inflation of 6.2 percent — its highest rate in decades.
  • Inflation has risen around the world as economies rebounded from the COVID pandemic and then worsened as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent food and fuel prices soaring.
  • Tuesday’s protests come after the left-wing CGT union rejected a deal over a pay increase that oil giant TotalEnergies struck with two other unions on Friday and called for continued walkouts into a fourth week.
  • The CFDT and CFE-CGC unions, which together represent a majority of the group’s French workers, agreed to a 7 percent pay rise and a financial bonus. But the CGT is holding out for a 10 percent pay rise.
  • Striking workers are demanding higher wages from the windfall profits of energy companies amid high oil and gas prices as Russia’s war in Ukraine aggravates an energy crisis. “Huge profits are being claimed off the back of our work, and we are just claiming our fair share of the wealth,” Axel Persson, CGT rail union spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

What impact are the strikes having?

  • Transport minister Clement Beaune said rail operator SNCF will see “severe disruptions” on Tuesday with half of train services cancelled. Suburban services in the Paris region as well as bus services will also be affected, operator RATP said, but the inner-Paris metro system should be mostly unaffected.
  • There were 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.
  • Beyond transport workers, unions hoped to bring out staff in sectors such as the food industry and healthcare, CGT boss Martinez told France Inter radio.
  • The education ministry said fewer than 6 percent of its workers had walked out, though that rate reached 23 percent for vocational schools.
  • A poll by the Elabe group found that one in three French people would be prepared to take part in a strike or protest in the coming weeks to demand pay increases as inflation soars.

How bad are the fuel shortages?

  • Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said that less than a quarter of petrol stations nationwide were experiencing shortages, down from 30 percent previously.
  • Strike action and unplanned maintenance have taken offline more than 60 percent of France’s refining capacity — or 740,000 barrels per day (bpd) — forcing the country to import more when global supply uncertainty has increased the cost.
  • Strikes have spilled over into other parts of the energy sector, including nuclear giant EDF, where maintenance work crucial for Europe’s power supply will be delayed.
  • A representative of the FNME-CGT union on Tuesday said strikes were affecting work at nuclear power plants, including at the Penly plant.

What has the government’s response been to the unrest?

  • President Emmanuel Macron’s government has used requisitioning powers to force some strikers back to open fuel depots, a move that infuriated unions but has so far been upheld in the courts.
  • “We will continue to do the utmost,” Macron said after a meeting on Monday with ministers, adding he wanted the crisis “to be resolved as quickly as possible”.
  • Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire earlier said it was necessary to use requisitioning powers to reopen the refineries and depots.
  • The strikes are happening as the government is set to pass the 2023 budget using special constitutional powers that would allow it to bypass a vote in parliament, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Sunday.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies