Lorry drivers begin blockade of France

Truckers began assembling barricades across France last night after negotiations aimed at preventing a strike broke down despite a late intervention by the French government.

Ian Burrell reports that the dispute is likely to be even more debilitating than last year's.

A giant tourniquet in the form of thousands of truckers' rigs parked back-to-back was applied to the main arteries of the French transport system last night.

French drivers have threatened to paralyse Europe with 32 official road blocks on motorways and at ports and border crossings throughout the country. Lorries assembled at fuel depots, border crossings to Spain and Germany, the ferry terminal to Britain at Calais - where spikes barred the way - and on the main north-south A6 motorway. Motorists were let through. One French union official said: "We can keep this up for weeks. We are determined. We are sorry for the drivers but we hope they will show solidarity."

Late on Saturday night, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, attempted to halt the dispute with the offer of a new salary package, equivalent to a 5 per cent pay rise for drivers, but it was not enough to divert the course of the trucking unions as they headed towards strike action.

Last night, the unions, who are also seeking improvements in working hours and conditions, seemed determined to punish employers who they believe reneged on agreements reached after last year's strike, which crippled the country for 12 days. The owners "did not respect the agreement of November 27 1996", said Eric Forissier, a union leader in Lyons. "Now we ask ourselves what their word is worth, and that's why we are taking action tonight."

By early last evening, lorry drivers had blockaded regional fuel depots at Reims, Poitiers, Bordeaux, Rouen, La Rochelle, Tours, Beziers, Lille and Bayonne, ahead of the 10pm national road blockade.

Their actions led to a frenzy of activity at petrol stations. "They might have legitimate demands," said Philippe Parmentier, a technology consultant, who was filling his tank in Paris. "But to take the whole population hostage, that's not right."

During negotiations this week, employers have argued that they have already fulfilled their commitments in last year's agreement, including lowering truckers' retirement age to 55, reducing their working hours and raising their pay.

Daniel Hodges, of the Road Haulage Association, estimated that up to 200 British lorry drivers might get enmeshed in the blockade. "It is difficult to judge how bad it could be, but if the blockades last more than a few days then we may see a shortage of vegetables, cheese, wine and meat produce in the shops," he said.

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