Americans heading to France this week are being urged to think twice before renting a car … because the country is running out of gas.
For the past two weeks, French trade union General Confederation of Labour has been locked in a bitter standoff with fuel giants TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil in a dispute over pay for its members.
Dozens of workers at several oil refineries owned by the multinationals walked out, blockaded several refineries and stymied gasoline supplies; as a result, more than a quarter of gas stations are now out of at least one type of fuel and 19% are completely dry.
The deadlock has grown so tense that the French government stepped in Wednesday, enacting emergency powers in a bid to order workers back to their jobs.
The government said that the recall of essential fuel workers at the blockaded Port Jerome refinery at Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon, in Normandy, would begin Wednesday. However, the move risks making the crisis worse, amid fears it could inspire other sectors to join the strike in solidarity with the striking fuel workers.
As of midday, out of more than 11,100 gas stations in France, 2,093 were completely out of fuel and 1,101 had run out of one type of fuel, the British Automobile Association reported Wednesday afternoon.
Long lines are reportedly snaking around gas pumps up and down the country as frustrated motorists try to fill up before the nation’s fuel network runs out.
Visitors planning to drive in France in the next few days were warned to fill up before they cross into the country (if possible). They are also advised to use eco-driving techniques such as moderating their speed and pumping their tires (more below).
When could the strikes end?
When the strike will end depends on how quickly the General Confederation of Labour and TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil can return to the table and thrash out a deal.
Workers at TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil refineries and fuel depots walked out in a dispute over pay two weeks ago. They have set up blockades at several refineries, forcing more than 60% of France’s refining capacity — or 740,000 barrels per day — offline.
Union chiefs are demanding wage increases to help workers cope with rocketing inflation as Europe grapples with one of its worst cost-of-living crises in decades.
Related: Here’s how to travel to France right now and what it’s like once you arrive
There had been hopes the dispute would die down Sunday as TotalEnergies, among the world’s biggest energy multinationals, agreed to bring salary talks forward in return for workers resuming service. The union, however, declined, accusing management of “blackmail.”
In a bid to prevent a run on the nation’s pumps, the French government has assured drivers that it is doing everything it can to reach a deal with fuel unions. Speaking during a visit to Mayenne in western France, President Emmanuel Macron said: “Negotiations are underway and on track … I hope that in the coming hours, the soonest, this can be resolved. Blocking is not a way to negotiate.”
Then, in a surprise move, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced a decision to requisition workers operating gas depots of ExxonMobil’s French branch Esso and threatened to do the same for those of the TotalEnergies group if an agreement is not reached quickly. She did not give a time frame for that demand.
“A salary disagreement does not justify blocking the country,” she said, adding: “I asked prefects to launch the procedure to requisition workers who are indispensable to the functioning [of the Esso fuel depots].”
The union responded by calling the plans “violent” and suspending all ongoing negotiations with the government and employers.
In response, TotalEnergies has said it would offer to hold first talks with unions who are not involved in the strikes. The General Confederation of Labour union will only be “welcome” to the table if it ends the walkouts, it added. The union called this “blackmail.”
How can I save fuel while driving in France?
The United Kingdom’s Automobile Association offers several essential techniques to save fuel while driving. They include:
Drive in high gear, while keeping to the speed limit.
Avoid using air conditioning or heating.
Make sure tires are pumped to the recommended pressure.
Use cruise control (if your car has it) whenever possible.
Lighten the car’s load.
Leave more room between you and the vehicle in front to reduce braking and accelerating.
Such techniques can easily save the equivalent of 38 cents a gallon, according to the AA.
The organization also reminded drivers that a full tank will, on average, last about 350 miles.