The standoff between refinery workers and energy groups has sparked calls for more strikes

La Défense (France) (AFP) - Two French unions announced a tentative pay rise agreement with oil giant TotalEnergies early Friday following emergency negotiations to end a three-week strike that has emptied the country’s petrol stations and sparked a wider backlash to the rising cost of living.

The hard-left CGT union, which initiated the industrial action, walked out of the meeting, however, and vowed to continue striking.

Under pressure from the government to resolve the 18-day crisis, the oil group met with four unions at its headquarters in the suburbs of Paris.

At around 3:30 am (0130 GMT), after nearly six hours of talks, representatives from CFDT and CFE-CGC said they supported the proposed seven percent pay increase and 3-6,000 euro bonus.

“The CFDT negotiating team is in favour of the measures that are on the table,” said Geoffrey Caillon, CFDT’s coordinator. CFE-CGC coordinator Dominique Conver also called the terms “rather favourable”.

The unions have until noon on Friday to consult with their members and decide whether to sign the offer.

Launched on September 27, the industrial action has blocked TotalEnergies’ refineries and fuel depots, causing nationwide fuel shortages and a crisis for President Emmanuel Macron’s government as calls grow for a general walkout.

Denouncing the negotiations as a “charade”, CGT representative Alexis Antonioli said TotalEnergies’ proposals were “largely insufficient”.

“It will not do anything to change the determination or outlook of the strikers,” Antonioli said.

French railway workers and civil servants represented by CGT voted to join the striking oil refinery staff in a national day of stoppages next Tuesday, raising fears that anger over surging inflation could spiral into a series of blockages.

The famously militant CGT said it was not only pushing for higher wages for railway workers but also wanted to signal anger at the government’s intervention.

Facing frustrated businesses and an increasingly alarmed public, Macron’s administration has invoked emergency powers to compel some striking refinery workers back to their jobs.

He pledged a return to normal “in the course of the coming week”.

- ‘A disaster’ -

Six out of seven refineries have been affected by the strikes, causing huge queues outside petrol stations and growing frustration among motorists.

At one requisitioned TotalEnergies site fuel tankers left the site under police protection

“It’s been a disaster,” said Francoise Ernst, a driving instructor. “We can’t work anymore.”

Only one refinery has been able to resolve the strike so far. At the Fos-sur-Mer facility, which belongs to Esso-ExxonMobil, an agreement was signed on Monday with CFDT and CFE-CGC, but the terms were also rejected by CGT.

“The time for a confrontation (with the government) has arrived,” left-wing opposition parliamentarian Clementine Autain from the France Unbowed party told France 2 television on Thursday.

Left-wing political parties are seizing on the strikes to ignite a protest movement against Macron and the rising cost of living, with a rally planned for Sunday.

Leading Greens lawmaker Sandrine Rousseau has said she hoped the refinery standoff would be “the spark that begins a general strike”.

But not all unions have joined the call for a general strike next Tuesday, with the country’s biggest, the CFDT, opting out.

- Sympathy and anger -

Until Tuesday, the government had been reluctant to inflame the pay dispute at French energy group TotalEnergies and US giant Esso-ExxonMobil.

The action has caused huge tailbacks outside petrol stations and growing frustration among motorists

TotalEnergies made a net profit of $5.7 billion in the April-June period and is distributing billions to shareholders as its employees push for higher wages.

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

With 30 percent of French service stations with little or no fuel, particularly those in the Paris region and the north, the government has begun requisitioning fuel depot workers, which forces them to return to work or risk prosecution.

After an ExxonMobil depot Wednesday, a TotalEnergies site in northern France was requisitioned Thursday, with the first laden fuel tankers protected by police seen leaving during the afternoon.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s office said the emergency measures were justified because of a “real economic threat” for northern France, which relies heavily on agriculture, fishing and industry.

But the unions have reacted furiously to the government intervention.

“What we are seeing here is the Macronian dictatorship,” CGT official Benjamin Tange told AFP. The current industrial action, he said, arose out of “the anger of several months, several years and a rupture of social dialogue”.