British drivers race to beat French strike

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The Independent Online
A nationalL strike by French lorry drivers looks set to go ahead from 10pm tonight, accompanied by more of the blockades that trapped thousands of foreign hauliers on the Continent during similar action last year. British drivers trying to reach Channel ports before the strike begins were hampered by a nationwide ban on truck traffic yesterday because of All Saints' Day.

The strike seemed inevitable after negotiations in Paris between French haulage unions and employers broke down on Friday night. The unions have threatened to mount roadblocks at ports, borders and motorways around the country unless their demands for improved pay and working conditions are met.

The Road Haulage Association, which represents more than 500 British companies, yesterday warned its members to cancel plans to travel to France in the coming days, and said roadblocks could prevent fresh produce from reaching British supermarkets.

Dan Hodges, spokesman for the RHA, said haulage companies feared another "winter of discontent" on Continental roads. "Our members are involved in a desperate dash to get out of France before the blockades go up," he said.

The British drivers received another blow when they were warned that two of the big insurance firms, Royal Sun Alliance and Norwich Union, will not cover them for loss of business or damage to their vehicles as a result of the dispute. Haulage companies have been told by their brokers that insurance claims are likely to be rejected because they knew that the industrial action was iminent.

The RHA said it hoped that the French authorities would look leniently on drivers who mistakenly flouted local restrictions on lorries. Trucks are not permitted on French roads from 10pm on Saturdays to 10pm on Sundays, but this weekend the ban came into force 24 hours earlier because of the public holiday. Only vehicles carrying livestock or perishables are exempt.

Renewed talks between the French trade unions and employer federations were planned for yesterday afternoon but, since the main syndicate of owners has already walked out, this latest round is regarded as meaningless. Unofficial strike action began yesterday, with 30 lorry drivers blockading three of the biggest petrol depots in the northern city of Rouen. Marcel Leconte, a local union leader, said they planned to block all petrol delivery trucks this weekend.

The unions want an immediate pay rise of 5 to 7 per centand changes in working hours. They say that some haulage companies have reneged on agreements made last year. The owners say they cannot afford to pay their drivers more.

Car owners stocked up on petrol and braced themselves for a repetition of the 10-day strike which caused chaos last November. The government has said it cannot guarantee that the highways will be open. Winegrowers were among those who stocked up on petrol, anxious to ensure that their beaujolais nouveau, uncorked every 20 November, reaches its markets.

The French Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, said on Friday night that he planned to introduce a bill on working conditions to break the cycle of disputes. However, he refused to take a role in the current negotiations.