Paris takes tougher line as truckers raise barricades

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The Independent Online
Almost a year after a French lorry-drivers' strike disrupted transport throughout Europe, more than100 barricades went up all over France yesterday. There are negotiations today to end the dispute, but John Lichfield and Ian Burrell find little impact so far on British and other foreign drivers.

It was an acute case of deja vu, but not as acute as many feared. By the middle of the day there were 100 truck blockades at strategic points across France, compared to 200 barriers at the height of the 10-day strike last December.

This time around, the French government and the French police are not just standing by and watching.

From early morning yesterday riot police threatened to use large mobile cranes to tow away offending vehicles in the most politically sensitive spots; they forced truck drivers to abandon barriers on the Spanish and German borders and at key points near Paris and Lille.

Although the port of Calais remained blocked, the French drivers made no attempt to prevent access to the Channel tunnel. Several cross-Channel ferries were diverted to Belgian ports and British drivers were able to drive freely across the Belgian border.

Last night Cherbourg was closed to passenger and freight vehicles, leaving hundreds of people stranded in the town. Le Havre was also closed to freight but remained open to passenger transport.

In many other places targeted by the strikers, such as fuel and food distribution centres and autoroutes, the truck barricades went unchallenged. Panic-buying of petrol over the weekend has already left many filling stations short of fuel.

The blockade has forced Oasis to cancel three shows on the French leg of their European tour. The band had hoped to give a charity gig in Paris in aid of Diana, Princess of Wales's favourite appeal, the London Lighthouse, but their equipment is stuck in Lille. A spokesman for their record label, Creation, said last night that they were hoping to reschedule.

Despite the disruption, the French drivers, who often work long hours for low pay, can count once again on considerable public sympathy. They complain that their employers have reneged on promises made to end last year's dispute, including a one-off payment of pounds 300.

The drivers are now asking for a minimum wage of roughly pounds 12,000 a year. On some autoroutes yesterday motorists, after queuing for many minutes to squeeze through the gaps left for cars in the barricades, tossed money into baskets held by the striking drivers.

Most press commentary in France has been sympathetic to the drivers and critical of the federation of large transport companies, which walked out of negotiations late last week. The large companies have been accused by unions of cynically engineering the strike in order to cripple the tens of thousands of small transport operators. The transport minister, Jean-Claude Gaussot - a Communist former union leader - will lead a fresh attempt to resolve the dispute this morning.

"It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up," said Paul Garner, a stranded lorry driver, as he spent yesterday cooped up in his cab in Le Havre. The sight which most annoyed him was not the huddle of strikers who had parked cars across the port entrance, but the French truckers who were driving past him on to the ferry, carrying goods to Britain. They were being joined by a procession of up to 40 disillusioned British truckers who had chosen to go home with their undelivered loads rather than face an indefinite wait on the quayside in France.

Mr Garner, from Lincoln, had been planning a four-day haul to Bordeaux, making 12 deliveries of various goods en route. After arriving at 7am on the night ferry from Portsmouth, he had yet to leave the docks last night. "This place is well stitched up," he said. "I agree with what the French are doing. I support them fully but they are stopping us working."

The Socialist-led government of Lionel Jospin, elected in June, remains broadly popular; it is also seen as being on the truckers' side.

On the evidence of the first day (and the mood may change) the new government feels confident enough to take action to keep key routes and borders open.