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France: Oil Workers’ Strike Turns the Country Upside Down, Opens a Breach for the Workers’ Movement

As a monthlong strike in French oil refineries shakes the country, a political crisis is on its way to unleashing a major social crisis, one in which new sectors could join the oil workers and unleash open-ended strikes for wage increases.

Arthur Nicola

October 21, 2022
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Translated from French by Antoine Ramboz and Inès Rossi

Everything started on September 20, after a series of wage negotiations between the French unions and ExxonMobil, the No. 1 oil corporation in the world. Before the trade unionists even returned to their refineries from the Parisian headquarters, Exxon’s two refineries in France were on strike, shutting down all facilities and depriving the country of 27 percent of its refining capacity.

The strike, however, was ignored by the media and the state until the refineries for Total (the fifth-largest oil company in the world, and the largest in France) joined the strike on September 27: within two days, the largest French refinery, the “Normandy platform,” shut down, as did the La Mède biorefinery, near Marseille. By October 3, all three refineries were completely shut down, and 60 percent of the country’s oil-refining capacities were stopped, as strikers blocked several other Total sites.

In both companies, the causes are the same: the employees are demanding wages that keep pace not only with inflation, but also with their bosses’ profits, as the oil companies accumulate billions in revenue. Total, for example, made a net profit of $5.7 billion in the second quarter of 2022, and then rushed to pay out 2.62 billion euros to its shareholders. For ExxonMobil, the profits are even more staggering, with $17.9 billion in profits in the second quarter.

Despite these astronomical profits, the multinationals stubbornly refuse to give in to demands that could break open a dam in many other workplaces. Beyond ExxonMobil and Total, companies with billions in profits have recently experienced strikes, such as Stellantis (a group resulting from the merger between PSA and Fiat) and Carrefour, and a victory in the petrochemical industry could give these workers a taste for an indefinite strike.

The Fuel Shortage: The First Roots of a Political Crisis

Faced with these open-ended strikes in the country’s main oil sites, the French government first did everything to ignore the strike, aided by a major media blackout. In this context, while the bourgeois media totally ignored the movement, Left Voice’s sister publication Révolution Permanente established itself as the primary media outlet covering the strike, putting at the heart of its articles the voices of the strikers who were largely ignored elsewhere. On October 7, however, the strike became the center of political debate in France, owing to fuel shortages that affected a third of the nation’s gas stations.

Footage of lines at gas stations began to multiply, forcing the media to mention the strike, while transportation companies such as SNCF or Keolis stressed the impact of the strikes and the possibility that they could affect their operations. In a few days, the refiners’ strike became the No. 1 issue in the country. The government faced a political crisis, led by the right wing, which from the beginning of the fuel shortage called for the requisition of strikers to keep the fuel depots running.

The government then made a double bet. The first was that public opinion would oppose the strikers, who were accused by Total’s boss of earning 5,000 euros a month (when the median wage is in reality 1,800 euros). The second bet was that the strikes would fade away over time, thanks to a policy of importing large quantities of fuel, pushing the government to seek out Russian oil to satisfy the shortages.

Members of Révolution Permanente who work in the oil refineries tried from within the Total CGT union (the CGT being the leading trade union in France) to defend a policy of coordination between the strikers of Total and Exxon, in order to prevent division, not only between the companies, but also between the different sites on strike. Moreover, faced with the bourgeois discourse parroted by the media, the goal of the revolutionaries in the union was to put forward the need to expand the strike and systematically build a strategy toward hegemony within the rest of the working class, which is likewise impoverished by an inflation created in large part by companies like Total.

Despite the negative media coverage of the strikers, who were presented as entitled people blocking the daily functioning of the economy, a large part of the population supports the movement. While not overwhelming, this support, which expresses the anger aroused by the billionaires’ profits and the important question of wages, has provoked fear in the government of an extension of the discontent. While the main “left” media participated actively or by omission in this smear campaign, Révolution Permanente became the only media ardently defending the strike, against the fake news of the government and Total, which wanted people to believe that the refiners were paid 5,000 euros. Moreover, members of Révolution Permanente’s student organization, Le Poing Levé, built support for the strike among the youth by collecting money for the strike funds and by bringing support delegations from the major universities to the picket lines.

Having originally wanted to stay out of the conflict, the government finally saw that the strikes at ExxonMobil (which entered their third week of strike action on October 11) and at Total (which were in their second week of strike action) were not abating. So the government decided to intervene in the most brutal way, aided by the CFDT, the main “reformist” union.

Requisitioning Strikers: An attack on the Movement That Cuts Both Ways

The offensive against the movement was conducted in two stages. On the one hand, the government and the bosses in the petrochemical industry bet on the signing of wage agreements between the companies and the more compliant unions. The idea was to reach wage agreements well below inflation, so as not to affect the profits of the oil multinationals, while still insisting that dialogue was possible, thus demonizing the strike. At ExxonMobil, a deal was signed giving employees a 5.5 percent raise, whereas the strikers were demanding 7.5 percent, and a similar deal was signed at Total with a 5 percent raise, where the strikers were demanding 10 percent. The CFDT union played an important role in these negotiations, their general secretary having condemned the movement on October 8, deeming it “useless.”

Then the government used one of its most powerful legal weapons against strikes to crush the movement and put an end to the shortages. Using the signed agreement to justify an intervention, the government announced on October 11 that it was requisitioning the strikers of ExxonMobil, ordering them to either go back to work or face up to six months of jail time. In response, the members of Révolution Permanente led a legal and public defense of the strikers, speaking out against the attack on the right to strike in an article signed by 112 lawyers published in the center-left newspaper Libération, and challenging the requisition orders before the administrative courts. The back-to-work order was nevertheless extended at the end of the week to the Total depot in Flandres, near Dunkirk. This bonapartist policy has, however, had mixed results.

On the one hand, the requisitions and the signing of agreements clearly affected some workers, who may feel that they are now stripped of their bargaining power. On the other hand, workers have rightly grown angry about the requisitions, especially among rank-and-file union members. The trade unions’ leaderships, who until now had favored a policy of “social dialogue” with the government, were forced to call for a one-day cross-sector strike on October 18 over wages and union rights, save for the CFDT. The media quickly described this as a “general strike.”

At the same time, struggles for pay raises have intensified in some companies: strikes have broken out in eight of the country’s 18 nuclear power plants (France produces 66 percent of its energy from nuclear power), including the largest power plant in western Europe, at Gravelines. Several companies in the automotive and aeronautical industries have joined the strike wave, while the powerful unions of railway workers, bus drivers, civil servants, teachers, and automobile workers have called for strikes, some of them open-ended, for higher wages and the right to strike.

A New Situation for a Government Weakened by the Political Crisis

The new phase opened by the refiners’ strike comes at a time when strikes for wages have been multiplying in the country for a year and a half. Notably, these have affected the retail sector, Amazon, the aeronautical industry (which is very significant in the country), then the public transport sector, the Paris airports, and finally the car industry. These strikes had relatively common characteristics: often local and majoritarian, they affected at once sectors with a strong tradition of struggle and sectors with no union experience. They have not, however, succeeded in giving rise to a coordinated movement, remaining confined to individual companies.

It also comes at a time when the French government is weakened by a political crisis. In May, Emmanuel Macron became president, having been elected with the fewest votes of any president since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, opening an explosive situation in which a government with little legitimacy was counting on a plan of attack against the labor movement. This crisis deepened after the legislative elections in June, when, for the first time under the Fifth Republic, the government did not obtain an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Facing a left-wing coalition led by the neoreformist “La France Insoumise” party — which includes the old Socialist Party, the Greens, and the French Communist Party, as well as a large far-right parliamentary group organized around the Rassemblement National — the French government found itself in a very unstable situation, forced to try to win parliamentary majorities bill by bill, or to play the regime’s anti-parliamentary mechanisms in order to override the Assembly.

In this context, the government, which had put a law on pensions at the center of its counterreforms,11 had done everything possible at the beginning of the year to rally all the country’s union leaderships into negotiations and consultations in order to avoid a conflagration. This had some success, since all the unions, from the CGT to the CFDT (which, in short, supports all the counterreforms) had agreed to sit at the table to negotiate, even though the reform would obviously be synonymous with social rollbacks. Now the situation is calling back into question this narrow path toward counterreform, which could come about in a social context intensified by the refiners’ strike and its eventual spread.

The situation is thus at a turning point, with the possibility of a powerful interprofessional strike on Tuesday and the start of open-ended strikes in strategic sectors. Anasse Kazib, spokesperson for Révolution Permanente, expressed it this way on the picket line with the Total refiners this Friday: “What you are currently doing is making history in the class struggle that is opening up. You are showing to everyone that the strength of workers is the strike. Thanks to you, the railway workers are going on strike Monday. Everyone understands one thing: if we hammer all together on the same nail, good luck to the bosses who can’t even defuse one single refiner’s strike. We are going to build the generalization of this strike together. Our whole social camp is waking up.”

The Challenges Facing the Movement

The fight is far from over. In fact, the government’s strategy to suppress the strike is beginning to work: at ExxonMobil, after agreements and requisitions, the strike was lifted at both refineries on October 14. At Total, the requisitioning of strikers helped alleviate the shortages throughout northern France, which had been particularly affected. This victory for the government was made possible by the inaction of the union leaderships, starting with the CGT leadership, who first ignored the strike even as it was putting the country on hold.

Although the social context was favorable to a general mobilization, the CGT leadership preferred to sit down with the government rather than build a movement around the ExxonMobil strikers, allowing the mobilization to run out of steam and the strikers to return to work. Moreover, the refiners’ unions struggled to put forward a hegemonic discourse to the whole working class, denouncing the billions in profits made by companies as a result of increases in fuel and energy prices. That has also, to a lesser extent, delayed the addition of new forces to the strike.

Despite this setback, a strike encompassing many sectors remains a possibility today. The resolve of Total’s refinery workers will be key to build a wider mobilization. As the strikers bear the brunt of the pressure from the French government and employers who want to put them back to work, the strike can still last until the start of a cross-sector movement that could begin next week and change the coming months’ agenda.

In the sectors that are joining the mobilization, the launching of grassroots initiatives that address the shortcomings of the union leaderships will also be key. That’s the strategy offered by Révolution Permanente, which organized a meeting of transportation workers on Saturday, October 15, to discuss the need for an open-ended strike with the sector’s vanguard. In the coming week this process must be built together with the first attempts to coordinate the different striking sectors.

Wage Indexation: A New Slogan for the Workers’ Vanguard?

While the future of the movement remains uncertain, it has succeeded in establishing the indexation of wages – ensuring that wages rise with changes in the economy, such as inflation – as a demand of the French workers’ vanguard. This is the only demand that can put an end to the loss of purchasing power. This slogan was relatively uncommon in the first days of the strike, but it has been picked up by the representatives of the refiners’ strike, while Révolution Permanente is running a political campaign for the indexation of wages and for the expropriation of the big energy companies in response to inflation and the cost of energy. Révolution Permanente activists put these slogans forward in their speeches on picket lines, as well as in many articles, in an attempt to bring them to the forefront, and it gradually took hold in the movement.

Alexis Antonioli, CGT leader at the Total Normandy refinery, explained it this way on Tuesday, October 11: 

Beyond the refineries, no one in France has been spared by brutal inflation. The only ones who benefit are the 1 percent who are gorging themselves. How did they make these profits? I won’t even mention the looting they’re doing in Uganda. But when you pay 2.20 euros per liter of gasoline, it’s their profits you provide. Our wages need to be indexed on inflation. Why shouldn’t they be? Why should we, the workers, have to fight every year to maintain our standard of living? This demand must be carried by the whole working class and the unions. We have to twist their arms to get wages indexed to inflation for everyone, not just for refiners.

In the wake of the refiners’ strike, the CGT federation for the chemical industry has even brought this slogan to their TV appearances, a step forward in imposing this demand.

At a time when the movement could become widespread, indexing wages to inflation as well as demanding an immediate increase of all wages by 400 euros constitutes the best way to end the impoverishment of the French working class, whose lowest wages are increasingly caught up by the minimum wage. This demand could unite civil servants and railway workers, whose salaries have been frozen for years, as well as workers in the private sector, whose last salary increases were 0.5 to 1 percent. In the case of a widespread movement for wage increases, this demand could unite all professional sectors and prevent the largest battalions of strikers from breaking away from the movement through sectoral negotiations.

These elements testify to the maturation of sectors of the vanguard. Together with the initiatives of self-organization and coordination, they will be decisive in the weeks to come to build an overall movement.

[Updates: This article was published by Révolution Permanente for the Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International on October 16. Since then, 300,000 people took to the streets on October 18. The call for an inter-branch strike was a mixed success, showing a strong potential for mobilization that has not yet been reached. The turnout of some key sectors, such as the youth or transportation workers, remained limited. Although anger against the government is widespread, the mobilization has not yet reached the point of bringing the country to a standstill. But the refiners’ strike shows how quickly a strike can upset the national state of affairs. The government knows that the slightest spark can ignite the social movement, which is why it is toughening up its response by considering using the army to unblock the depots. These last weeks have shown that a workers’ awakening is possible, and expected by many. We will continue to work toward building this perspective.]

Note

[1] In France, the issue of pensions is synonymous with the large social movements. In 1995 a three-week strike by railway workers and public transport workers in Paris brought the country to a standstill against a reform that would raise the retirement age. The strike made the government partially back down. In 2010 a new reform provided for the postponement of the retirement age by two years: France was set ablaze with open-ended strikes among railway workers and refiners. Though the reform passed, this happened only after weeks of workers’ blocking the economy. Finally, in 2019, a new pension reform was put forth to abolish the “special regimes” of retirement, but this was swept away by a strike of a month and a half at the SNCF and the RATP, even if the French government has used the COVID pandemic to “postpone” this reform.

Notes

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