Unions blockade French oil refineries over pension reform plans

Oil refinery workers began a four-day walkout

A banner of the CGT Union reading in French "on strike" is pictured on a fence of the Lavera oil refinery on January 7, 2020 as the site is closed due to a blockade called by the CGT of France's refineries and fuel depots as part of the 34th day of the strike against a pensions overhaul.  / AFP / Christophe SIMON
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Unions in France blockaded several of the country’s oil refineries on Tuesday as part of an ongoing protest over government plans to reform public sector pensions.

Workers at Exxon Mobil France's Port Jerome and Fos refineries began a four-day walkout, joining transport workers who have been striking since December 5.

The rail strikes have lasted longer than any strike in recent history, causing a political headache for President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected in 2017 on a promise to update France’s pension system.

Talks to try to end the impasse resumed on Tuesday, however, both sides appeared to be far from reaching a resolution.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said after the meeting that the government would press on with its timetable to get the pension reform bill through parliament. The bill is due to be debated by MPs from the middle of February.

The hardline CGT union left the talks calling for more workers to join the walkout.

“The strikes aren’t about to stop,” said Catherine Perret, a senior official from the CGT union.

A day of mass walkouts across the country will take place on Thursday, which could see many schools close and even more disruption take place across the public transport system.

Transport workers are on their 35th day of protests against proposals to introduce a universal points-based pensions system, replacing 42 pre-existing schemes.

One of the main sticking points in the reforms is to push the age of at which workers can take home a full pension upon retirement from 62 to 64.

The government says the reforms are essential to keep the pensions system financially viable.

Mr Philippe said he was open to negotiating over the average retirement age with unions but condemned the blockade of the oil refineries.

"People have the right to strike, but they do not have the right to block [refineries]," he told RTL radio.

The ministry for the environment said the refineries had been able to operate despite the strike. However, five out of seven had experienced difficulties in trying to distribute their products.

The ministry said France had fuel stocks to last beyond three months and most of the country’s 11,000 petrol stations were completely unaffected.