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French Protests Highlight Pressure on European Leaders From Energy Crisis
Striking workers marched in dozens of cities, in unrest that tests Europe’s support for Ukraine in its war with Russia
A demonstration in Rennes, in western France.
By Noemie Bisserbe, Matthew Daltonand Bojan Pancevski, WSJ
Updated Oct. 18, 2022 2:02 pm ET
PARIS—More than 100,000 people took to the streets across France on Tuesday to demand higher wages to cope with rising energy bills and broader inflation, a sign of the political turmoil facing President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders as the war in Ukraine rages with no end in sight.
Striking teachers, railway and health workers staged marches in dozens of cities across the country, joining protests led by refinery workers who have been on strike for several weeks, choking fuel supplies nationwide and hobbling the country’s refining system. Around 28% of the nation’s gas stations have run out of either gasoline or diesel. Long lines have formed at stations that have supplies, and prices have risen sharply. Marches were mainly peaceful but some protesters in Paris smashed store windows and clashed with police.
The unrest is a test of Europe’s support of Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Europeans were already reeling from inflation fueled by supply-chain woes and other factors when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compounded the pain.
Moscow’s decision to cut natural-gas supplies to Europe—a move that Western officials say is aimed at punishing the continent for backing Ukraine—has sent electricity and gas prices soaring, sparking demands from workers for pay increases to cushion the blow. Geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia have also bolstered oil prices, hitting drivers at the pump.
Eight months into the conflict, most people in Europe still support the West’s sanctions against Russia and weapons deliveries for Ukraine. But the continent’s leaders fear the economic stress could undermine public support for these policies or the governments that back them, particularly as winter sets in and demand for gas rises.
Polls show that public backing has slipped since the start of the war. A poll of France and Germany released by Ifop this month found that 67% of the French supported sanctions against Russia, down from 72% in March; German support fell to 66% from 80%.
In threatening Europe’s energy supply, Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted a vulnerability that cuts to the core of the continent’s economic and political stability. The sudden lack of low-cost gas is clobbering industries that relied on Russian supplies for decades, leading to price increases and the shutdown of aluminum smelters, steel mills and other energy-hungry factories across the continent.
Higher prices also punish working- and middle-class households that have grown frustrated with the continent’s political establishment in recent years.
In Germany, thousands of people have held protests in recent weeks, demanding caps on energy bills, greater financial support for vulnerable families as well as the end of sanctions against Russia.
The most recent series of protests, which took place in Berlin, Potsdam and Leipzig last week, were organized by an alliance of unions and environmental organizations, under the slogan “Enough is enough. We won’t freeze for profits.”
Protesters called for a boost of welfare payments, more affordable housing and better climate policies.
“Some companies are getting richer off the crisis and social unrest is therefore brewing,” said Manuela Grimm, a leader of an association of unions from the Leipzig region.
Officials and analysts are concerned the protests could be hijacked by far-right and far-left groups that seek to capitalize on public discontent with the economic slowdown that is partly driven by the economic war with Russia.
Earlier this month, thousands of people held rallies and marches across former East Germany to protest Berlin’s delivery of weapons to Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia. Many rallies were linked to extreme political groups including the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
In Italy, the political class is nervous about the potential for rising public anger this winter if energy costs aren’t tamed. Italy hasn’t seen mass protests over the rising cost of living. However, many individuals and businesses are angry about their high gas and electricity bills.
Western leaders are preparing for the possibility that Russian natural gas flows through the key Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe, and how it might ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang
How to bring down energy bills was one of the central issues in Italy’s election campaign in September. Italy’s likely next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, will be under pressure to find a way to reduce the financial pain of high energy costs in time for winter. Many Italian politicians are frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations in the European Union about how to tackle energy costs. Italy has been pushing for a price cap on gas imports, but Germany has so far rejected the idea.
In France, restive unions have unleashed weeks of strikes at refineries across the country just as the government was preparing the public for a winter with tight fuel supplies. Mr. Macron said on Monday the government was doing the maximum to end the fuel shortage as quickly as possible.
“I stand by all of our compatriots, who are struggling and are fed up with this situation,” Mr. Macron told reporters, speaking on the sidelines of the Paris Motor Show.
The government has ordered some workers at fuel depots owned by Esso-SAF ES, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., and TotalEnergies SE, to return to work, invoking rarely used legal powers to secure fuel supplies.
Two of France’s largest unions, CFDT and CFE-CGC, have reached deals with Esso and TotalEnergies. Total has agreed to a 7% pay raise and a bonus of 3,000 euros, equivalent to $2,950, to €6,000. Esso said it would raise salaries this year by 6.5% and give a bonus of €3,000.
But the leftist CGT union slammed the door to talks, and called for workers to continue the strike. The CGT and another leftist union, Force Ouvrière, are demanding a 10% increase in salaries to compensate workers for surging inflation. The workers are also asking for a bigger cut of the large profits earned by TotalEnergies and Exxon Mobil because of surging global energy prices.
“The time for negotiation is over,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said in a TV interview on Monday, adding it was unacceptable for the CGT to continue walkouts when a deal has been reached with other unions that represent a majority of workers.
The strike has spilled over other parts of the energy sector. At nuclear giant EDF SA, strikes have delayed repairs to the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors, more than half of which are offline because of corrosion discovered on their cooling systems and maintenance. EDF in recent days has pushed back the restart dates for some of these reactors by up to a month, fanning fears that France could face electricity shortages as temperatures drop.
The strike has compounded the energy crunch facing Europe and France. The continent is scrambling to buy natural gas from non-Russian suppliers, spending heavily on high-price liquefied natural gas. The outages in France’s fleet of nuclear reactors have put upward pressure on power prices across Western Europe.
French people remain divided over the strike. A recent Elabe poll showed 39% support the striking workers, 49% are against while 12% say they are indifferent.
“We are fighting for decent salaries,” said Isabelle Callec, a 57-year-old assistant nurse, who took part in protests on Tuesday. She said that living in Paris has become impossible with the increase in food prices and rent. “The government should raise our wages and keep supporting Ukraine,” she added.
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