Tempers fray in truckers' dispute

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The Independent Online
The government of Lionel Jospin has staked its credibility, both at home and within Europe, on an early solution to the French truckers' dispute. As John Lichfield and Ian Burrell report, there were signs yesterday that the main French employers' federation may be prepared to give ground in new talks today or tomorrow but some British drivers' tempers are fraying.

French police reckon that it would take 300 truck barricades to paralyse France. At the height of the crippling 10-day dispute last winter, there were 250 barriers. Yesterday, on the second day of the new truckers' strike, the number grew to 140, including one, briefly, at the access road to the Channel Tunnel near Calais.

Unlike last year, the police have received strict orders from the government to keep open the main frontier crossings and other key points. The truckers, despite some angry scuffles with foreign drivers, have mostly avoided confrontation. Twelve out of the 13 French oil refineries, and many other key industrial sites and arterial roads, remained blocked, however.

In Lille, where 400 lorry drivers were trapped all day, the frustration proved too much for one Irish trucker who was taken away by police after trying to smash his way through the road-block. In his escape attempt he rammed one French vehicle leaving it badly damaged and injured a picket who tried to stop him getting away.

British lorries successfully broke through a road-block six miles south of Boulogne after pickets briefly lifted a plank spiked with nails, which they had used to block the carriageway.

Daniel Hodges, of the Road Haulage Association, described the strikers' attempts to stop the fleeing lorries as "the most disturbing development to date". And he added: "It is vital that the French union leaders condemn acts of violence and control their members on the ground. It's equally important that the French police ensure the safety of all nationalities involved in this dispute."

At present, the dispute appears to be delicately poised. The largest federation of French transport companies - accused by some of deliberately provoking the strike - failed yesterday to turn up for talks at the transport ministry, saying it needed time to consult its members. But, in a marked change of approach, it promised that it would be ready to negotiate seriously by today on the improved pay deal agreed by other employers and some unions at the weekend.