Motorists across the country have faced long queues to fill tanks at stations

Paris (AFP) - The French government on Thursday ordered workers back to a second fuel depot in a bid to ease petrol shortages from a three-week strike, a move that infuriated unions hoping to amplify the conflict into a broader protest against President Emmanuel Macron.

Motorists across the country have faced long queues to fill tanks at stations that often run dry in a day, as six of France’s seven refineries have been shut down.

“I have to honour my contracts for cleaning homes. And when there’s no petrol and I have a lot of rounds to make, things get complicated,” said Elisabeth Mailhes, waiting at a station in the capital.

Macron acknowledged the mounting anger in a televised address Wednesday, promising that relief was in sight for next week.

The office of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Thursday the government was “counting on talks resuming in the coming hours between management and labour representatives”.

But in the meantime, essential workers were told to return to work Thursday at the huge TotalEnergies fuel depot near Dunkirk, northern France, where around a dozen police were stationed outside, an AFP journalist saw.

Borne’s office cited a “real economic threat” for much of northern France, which relies heavily on agriculture, fishing and industry.

The strike has left 30 percent of service stations nationwide with little or no fuel, though nearly half of stations are impacted in northern France and the greater Paris region, the energy transition ministry said.

The CGT and FO unions leading the refineries strike have said they will fight the requisition orders in court, calling them an illegal manoeuvre against the right to labour action.

“This is the Macron dictatorship,” said Benjamin Tange, a CGT official at the Dunkirk site.

“What we’re seeing is the anger built up over several months and years, and a breakdown of any social dialogue,” he said.

- Escalation of tensions feared -

The government had already requisitioned depot workers to return to the Esso-ExxonMobil refinery at Gravenchon-Port-Jerome in northern France on Wednesday.

In response, CGT and FO leaders planned to meet with other unions Thursday to discuss broadening the strike to other sectors, potentially with a mass walk-out next Tuesday.

The CGT is already pushing to extend the strike throughout the energy sector, potentially disrupting operations in the country’s all-important nuclear sector.

The refinery unions are seeking pay hikes in response to steep inflation, pointing to the massive profits of energy companies as gas and oil prices have soared during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Thursday, TotalEnergies told AFP it would propose a six percent raise for next year, below the CGT’s demand for an immediate 10 percent hike, retroactive to January 1.

“We’re not going to negotiate through the media,” responded Eric Sellini, the CGT coordinator at the company.

Government officials are pressing the companies to negotiate, fearing an escalation of tensions ahead of a nationwide march Sunday against inflation, organised by Macron’s left-wing opponents.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio that given TotalEnergies’ huge profits this year, it had “the capacity… and therefore an obligation” to raise workers’ pay.

In a sign that talks are making headway, striking workers at the Esso-ExxonMobil refinery in Fos-sur-Mer, outside Marseille in the southeast, voted Thursday to lift the blockade after reaching a pay deal, unions and management told AFP.