French word of the day: pénurie de carburant (20/10/2022)

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So we are in the middle of a gas and petrol shortage here in France, with cars lining up for miles in certain districts. No, it is not because gas isn’t flowing from Russia, but rather an issue the French are experts in: la grève (aka strike action).

To sum up, the war waged by Russia has led energy prices soaring, leading the French company Total Energies to new highs. So profitable in fact, they decided to declare a “special dividend” on Sept 28th of €1/share, in addition to the 5% increase in quarterly interim dividends that had already announced.

While anyone with half a braincell watching it on French BFM Business tv could have predicted “special dividend” trouble, these protests apparently have caught both Total and government officials off guard. A mere 3 weeks later, the petrol refineries are on strike and about 30% of petrol and diesel stations across the country are suffering from a pénurie de carburant (fuel shortage).

In some parts of France like the Loire Valley, 40% of gas stations are reporting to be dry. In addition, other industrial sectors like the nuclear plants and train transport sectors could also join the protests for pay increases and the rising cost of living.

Most of the strike action is being led by the CGT, a union historically known for its rather combative stances.

Twitter joke: CGT union workers at a french restaurant called “Au Boulot” which means “At work”.

This is a union that used to be the largest union in France, but was superseded a couple of years by the more willing-to-reform CFDT union, which represents a larger percentage of moderate employees.

(All large companies with employees in France are required to sign a union agreement and provide the unions funding, making them much stronger in France than in North America. Hence our 6-10 weeks annual vacations.)

President Macron is said to be annoyed he has to take time away from burnishing his European diplomatic credentials to make time for this, but anyway it is Total Energie that is at the unions’ negotiating table. (I’m sure Macron has everyone on speed dial, he has been known to get involved in even minor negotiations like getting star football players to re-sign with French clubs.)

So while this isn’t technically a government negotiation, this is who cranky French consumers are going to blame if they can’t get to work or get around. Unluckily for those consumers however, we are potentially in for the long haul since this is likely the last hurrah for larger-than-life CGT union head Philippe Martinez.

Cartoon caption: We don’t negotiate at gunpoint.

Mustachioed Martinez is a firm socialist and nemesis of the Macron government. However he is soon going to cede his spot to the new elected head, Marie Buisson in March 2023.

Compared to Martinez, incoming Buisson is a teacher and an ecologist and presumedly less interested in leading union protests in polluting industries like gas and nuclear energies. So for old-school unionists like Martinez, this could be their big moment to make their issues heard.

All this to say, if you are French, hold on to your seatbelts because we could be in for a bumpy ride. The general strike this past Tuesday was rather weak by French standards, but who is to say where this is headed.

Either way, it probably isn’t the best time to plan any extended road trips unless you want to be stuck on the side of the road with your car tank empty. FYI, school fall holidays in France start this weekend.

In other news:

  • French footballer Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) has won the Ballon d’Or in Paris at the age of 34, a redemption after years under a dark cloud. I’ll leave the UK’s Sun newspaper to explain.
  • In my last newsletter, I wondered out loud what the phrase “rolling blackouts” was in French. The head of ENEDIS electricity in France has helpfully clarified that it is called coupures tournantes ciblées de 2 heures.
  • The annual cheesy aligot competition is reaching new heights.

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