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Inflation triggers strikes across France: What to know about the protests

A protester wields a flare during a demonstration in Paris on Tuesday. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

Workers around France have walked out to demand better pay amid swirling warnings of a tough winter ahead in Europe. Many on the continent are struggling with record inflation and an energy crisis.

Here’s what to know about the strikes that have snowballed in France:

How did the French strikes start?

They began weeks ago with refinery workers who went on strike to demand higher salaries, partly arguing that oil and gas companies have raked in profits from Europe’s soaring energy prices — a trend being driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The strikes led to fuel shortages and lines at stations around France as some pumps ran dry. Nearly a third of the country’s gas stations were out of some type of fuel by Sunday.

Protesters and riot police clashed on the streets of Paris Oct. 18, as a result of fuel shortages and industry strikes across the country. (Video: The Washington Post)

France threw money at its energy crisis, but people are still angry

But the walkouts also reflect broader discontent and worries over how to afford mounting household bills this winter.

Who went on strike?

Beginning with refinery and oil depot workers — who have extended their walkout — protests spread to other industries. The strikes also affected French nuclear power plants, where workers want higher wages.

On Tuesday, thousands of people, including railway workers and high school students, joined a nationwide strike for the day that caused some transit disruptions. That action followed a large march in Paris on Sunday that was promoted by opposition politicians and was focused on the rising cost of living.

Unions have pledged more action. One of country’s largest unions that is helping lead the strikes, the CGT, reported over 180 protests around the country Tuesday, with 70,000 people in the capital, Paris.

The Interior Ministry, however, gave a lower estimate of about 107,000 demonstrators, including 13,000 in Paris. It said that 11 people were arrested and eight law enforcement officers lightly wounded in clashes with protesters on Tuesday.

Is inflation driving the protests?

Hit by inflation, purchasing power ranked far ahead as a main concern for the French, who cited that point of worry three times more than immigration and crime in a survey published this month.

The government has spent billions subsidizing gasoline prices and energy bills, but the prices of many supermarket basics still have risen.

While France has taken bolder steps than many countries to contain the impact of Europe’s energy crisis and curb inflation, the show of frustration has raised questions about whether that will be enough in the long run. It has also drawn comparisons with the 2018 yellow vest movement, which was sparked by proposed tax increases but widened over weeks to include grievances about social inequality.

How is France addressing the cost of living crisis?

This time, as the conflict in Ukraine propelled the energy supply crunch in Europe, natural gas prices have been capped at fall 2021 levels and increases in energy prices limited to 4 percent.

How Europe is responding to Russia’s ‘energy war’ as winter comes

The caps, set to rise next year, are expected to remain lower than in many European countries, and the French government is giving vulnerable households a short-term relief payment of up to $195, which critics say will not offset the levels of inflation hitting poorer communities.

The simmering anger is turning into a challenge in French President Emmanuel Macron’s second term. In Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said it was “unacceptable that a minority continues to block the country” and said it was time to get back to work.

Still, the country’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, acknowledged “a salary problem” in France, urging employers “to increase pay when possible.”

Rick Noack contributed to this report.