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French oil refineries strike spreads

PARIS, Feb 21 – Strikes at French refineries looked likely to spread as Exxonmobil employees Friday were called to join a protest at oil giant Total that has raised fears of supply cuts.

Total\’s management told AFP it had started halting refining operations after unions extended their two-day strike, in protest at the closure of a plant in Dunkirk, to an unlimited action. The group has six refineries in France.

The CGT union then called for a one-day strike at the two refineries in France run by Exxonmobil, the biggest US oil company, to support the Total workers, citing similar restructuring proposals at Exxonmobil.

The Total strike on Friday also affected seven of the company\’s 31 depots which supply about half of France\’s filling stations. Total insisted there was "at this stage no risk of a shortage" of fuel at the pumps.

The French Petroleum Industry Union said that the country\’s depots had up to three weeks\’ worth of fuel.

The management of Total, which is under pressure after announcing possible job cuts last month, said there was "a hardening of the movement" since unions on Wednesday had only announced a two-day strike.

The director of the Feyzin refinery, Jean-Pierre Poncin, said however that "if the strike continues, there will be tension in the Rhone-Alpes region (in southern France) in the coming days" since some oil depots were also on strike.

Employees on Thursday voted for "an unlimited strike at all the plants" in France, Charles Foulard, a leader of the CGT trade union at Total, told AFP.

The energy giant last month said it was studying a permanent closure of a refinery in Dunkirk, which employs 370 people directly and 450 sub-contractors.

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Total has come under pressure from the government to guarantee jobs after President Nicolas Sarkozy said that fighting unemployment was a priority.

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