Nationwide strikes paralyzed France's oil refining industry on Thursday, with only one out of 12 plants operating normally and some petrol stations reporting brief shortages due to panic buying.
A strike at the key Mediterranean oil port of Fos Lavera entered its 18th day on Thursday while workers at most refineries were also on strike as part of stoppages across the country that began on Tuesday over government pension reforms.
Striking workers were blocking fuel supplies at nine of the country's 12 oil refineries on Thursday, CGT and CFDT union officials said.
Strike action at refineries and also at the Fos-Lavera oil port meant seven refineries were in the process of shutting down, they said.
"The situation is hardening, people are no longer even asking themselves whether to continue the movement," a union official at Total SA's Grandpuits refinery told Reuters by telephone.
Benchmark European gasoline prices rose to fresh five-and-a-half month highs, just shy of testing the $780 mark due to the prolonged strikes in France and maintenance work at Royal Dutch Shell's Pernis site, Europe's largest refinery, in Rotterdam, traders said.
"The strike and the Pernis outage are the two main things this morning," a trader said.
Premium unleaded gasoline also tested 5-1/2 months during Wednesday trade, rallying to trade at $785-$789 a tonne.
Some petrol stations in France reported brief shortages on Wednesday, partly caused by panic buying by motorists.
French oil lobby UFIP said supply shortages could start to affect petrol pumps by the middle of next week. UFIP called on the government to decide whether to use strategic stocks, and France's federation of road haulage firms said it had asked for stocks to be released for trucks.
Speaking on news channel LCI, transport minister Dominique Bussereau did not comment on the strategic stocks but said there was enough supply provided motorists avoided panic buying.
France's strategic fuel reserves, representing three months' supply, were last used in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina in the United States disrupted international supply.
A diesel trader said product was coming into France from Germany and Italy.
The International Energy Agency said on Wednesday that European refinery utilization was only at 82 per cent right now, which meant supplies could be increased elsewhere within the region to deal with a disruption.
At the Fos-Lavera oil hub, which supplies several refineries with crude oil, no negotiations were planned for the moment with port management to solve the deadlock, union officials said.
Refinery and port workers were also blocking a major fuel depot near the Fos-Lavera hub on Thursday, they added.