Lorry blockade is lifted to let British drivers go home

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The Independent Online
Hundreds of stranded lorry drivers were allowed to board ferries to Britain yesterday as the four-day blockade of the port of Calais was briefly lifted before striking French truckers closed it off again.

French union representatives said the concession was a "gesture of camaraderie" to the trapped drivers and that the 250 other blockades throughout France would remain in place.

Tension had been running high all afternoon in the port as British, Spanish and Italian drivers, some of whom had been in the blockade since Sunday night, became increasingly frustrated at the stalemate in talks between French unions and management.

Rumours were circulating that some Spanish drivers were siphoning diesel from British tanks and one driver from Middlesbrough claimed that a third of his petrol tank had been drained overnight. The Spanish and Portuguese responded by saying that the thermostats on some of their refrigerated lorries had been turned up, and issued an ominous threat to start burning trucks late at night.

The mood changed as soon as the decision was made temporarily to lift the blockade, and jubilant British drivers leapt into their cabs and began blasting on their horns.

Ray Hardwicke, from Normanton, West Yorkshire, who was taking a load of extra virgin olive oil from Italy to London, said: "Goodbye France, it's great to be going home. It's really good of the French to let us through, but I expect I'll be caught in another blockade next week."

The Freight Transport Association was less enthusiastic. "It's almost like hostages being released," said spokesman Adam Wurf. "I'm somewhat cynical about it. If they really have these good intentions, why not allow home the drivers who have been caught up in this for 11 days?"

The lifting of the Calais blockade was of little consolation to the small band of British drivers who had been trapped in the port on their way into France. It soon dawned on them that if they drove off they would be trapped at another picket line, 20kms down the road to Paris at St Omer.

Like the estimated 1,000 British drivers who are still stranded in France, negotiations between French unions and management made no progress yesterday. Truckers are demanding a pay rise of up to 23 per cent but employers have offered only 1 per cent. Meanwhile 5,000 of France's 18,000 petrol stations are running low on fuel.

The deadlock angered Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, who has written to Bernard Pons, his French opposite number, stressing the urgent need to secure the release of all British lorries.

He was particularly concerned by reports from consular officials of French police taking action to support the strikers, including towing one British trucker back to a blockade after he had succeeded in breaking through.

Yesterday, Sir George summoned the French Ambassador in London, Jean Gueguinou, for news about what was being done to end the dispute.

Not everyone was criticising the French drivers. Alex Falconer, the Scottish Euro MP, said they were a shining example to workers across Europe and more should follow their lead in protesting about the impact on normal people of the race to reach a single currency.

In Kent, there was continued misery for truckers with delays of up to 15 hours for 900 drivers waiting to be allocated to ferries crossing to the continent via Belgium.