With roads blocked in some places by hundreds of lorries, the government seemed at a loss for a strategy to remove them. Riot police and paramilitary gendarmes took up position near some roadblocks last night, however, indicating that the use of force might be imminent. Near Lille, the police began to advance on a barricade, but turned back when women and children from neighbouring villages stood between them and the lorry-drivers.
The protests pose the most serious challenge to French state authority since the student unrest of 1968 led to stoppages which nearly toppled the government.
Over the first peak weekend of the summer season, farmers opposed to EC farm reform joined the lorry drivers, who are against new driving licence laws. The farmers blocked railway lines leading to the resorts of the Cote d'Azure. Their action foiled plans by the state railways, which had put on extra trains to help holidaymakers to reach the area.
The public reaction so far, apart from among those trying to travel, has been largely passive and attempts to organise counter-protests by the 'silent majority' have been a flop.
An organisation set up apparently to respond, the Association for the Defence of Economic Activity, bought radio time for a commercial yesterday, accusing the lorry- drivers of taking motorists 'hostage'. 'Enough is enough,' it concluded. In some areas, food supplies were affected and factories laid off workers because industrial material could not be delivered.
Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, emphasised again that he would not withdraw the driving licence reform. Jean-Louis Bianco, the Transport Minister, met officials last night to discuss bringing forward negotiations with drivers' unions, which had been set for Thursday.
The government had apparently hoped that the gap in the talks, broken off last Friday, would contribute to the drivers' fatigue and prompt them to abandon their protests. However, with the number of roadblocks nearing 150 at times, the action showed no signs of flagging.
For travel information, tel: (AA 0836 401904); (RAC 0891 700300); (Centre National d'Information Routiere 010-331 48943333).
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