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Despite Threats of Arrest, Refinery Workers in France Refuse to Break Strike

As energy strikes continue, France is faced with a kerosene shortage that’s creating an urgent situation at the country’s airports. With capitalist profits on the line, the government has attempted to force Normandy refinery workers back to work through an anti-strike legal weapon called requisitions. In their first victory, refinery workers forced the police to withdraw in an incredible demonstration of solidarity.

Nathan Erderof

March 24, 2023
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Photo: BFMTV

In the midst of the energy strike in France, the fuel shortages affecting the southern and western regions of the country are creating a dire situation at the country’s airports. On Wednesday evening, the French government decided to intervene at the largest refinery in France, Total Normandy. Under threat of imprisonment and excessive fines, the state attempted to force the strikers back to work to ship kerosene to the airports. These anti-strike measures called “requisitions” are a legal weapon used by the French state to stifle collective worker action and save capitalist profits.

Faced with this offensive on Wednesday evening, the refiners at CGT Total Normandy called all the union members of Le Havre to a rally in front of the refinery. More than three hundred strikers from all the industrial zones of the region (dockers, port workers, SNCF, Chevron, and others) as well as students stayed out all night to prevent the requisitioned workers from returning to the site and to stave off the police.

“These requisitions are about to fall through. The challenge for them today is to recover the 73,000 m3 of kerosene we have in our tanks. The Paris airports are a shitshow — they only have two days of kerosene in pure stock left. They went into downgrade mode. They canceled 30 percent of the flights. They are asking the medium-haulers to work double-duty. They are in a critical situation,” said Alexis Antonioli, secretary general of CGT Total Normandy from the refinery on Wednesday night.

“We shouldn’t have any illusions about this,” he continued. “The government will do anything to break the strike. They’ll do anything to get kerosene, whether it’s from us, the CIM, or Exxon. They are going to try to recover the whole storage. They are completely panicking — the strikes are continuing, the mobilization is strengthening, and the momentum among the youth is growing.”

On site, the demonstration of solidarity with the workers allowed the unions to thwart the maneuvers of management, who tried to requisition workers who had just returned to the picket without giving them any advanced warning. To prevent this, the strikers decided to disrupt the shift changes. 

Antonioli announced, “If they want us to come back, they have to drop the requisitions. We’ll monitor the facilities, but that’s all we’ll dot. We won’t ship any product. Faced with these attacks, we’re taking take a harsher tone and we’ll refuse to do any shift changeovers.” 

At the same time, workers at a petrochemical plant located opposite the rig voted to shut down facilities at two of the units and called for the shutdown of other facilities.

Management tried to negotiate with the strikers on Wednesday night, proposing to lift the requisitions if they agreed to end the strike, but the workers refused outright. After nearly 24 hours on the picket line, workers called a rally after the demonstration in Le Havre to continue organizing solidarity.

On the picket line Thursday, Alexis Antonioli explained, “We’ve had no police interventions  nor requisitions because we’ve stopped them. But if law enforcement does intervene, it will be similar to what happened in Fos-sur-Mer. Only solidarity will prevent the requisitions!”

In the face of repeated attacks by the government, which is diving headlong into authoritarianism, the refinery workers of Total Normandy and their supporters are leading the way. The trade union leadership must follow their lead and urgently position themselves to denounce these requisitions and concretely organize the response, putting all means possible toward building solidarity and organizing a general strike.

First published in French on March 23 on Révolution Permanente

Translation by Stacey Bear

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