Truckers slow France to a snail's pace

1,000 British lorries trapped by barricades in dispute over working hours
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Up to 1,000 British lorries, many with perishable cargoes, have been caught up in a blockade of roads and motorways throughout France by 10,000 angry French lorry drivers.

The protest over working conditions, now in its sixth day, shows no sign of easing. Many regions throughout France are suffering from lengthy tailbacks.

And last night the Foreign Office issued a warning to commercial drivers, advising them to avoid travelling to France if possible.

French drivers, co-ordinated by CB radios and mobile telephones, are using a tactic called "l'escargot" - driving at snail's pace. The demonstrations have already led to petrol supply problems. Many petrol stations in the worst-hit areas in the north were yesterday displaying Pas de Gas (no petrol or diesel) signs.

Although there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence between French drivers and their British counterparts caught up in the dispute British Embassy and consulate officials have reached agreement reached for special cases. French drivers allowed a potential bone-marrow donor to make his way clear of one blockade. One British driver who gave his name only as Pete, told The Independent "I've only been here for one night, but some of the Brits here have been trapped for three or four days.

"As you can imagine, we're really brassed off about being cooped up here just because of the French industrial action.

"It's a complete farce and you can take it from me that there is a lot of anger here amongst some of the drivers. God only knows when we will be able to get out."

Talks between the lorry drivers' union and the government broke down yesterday. Although there were slim hopes that they would be resumed over the weekend, there seemed little chance of the dispute, whose origins go back to 7 November, ending quickly.

Under French law, lorries are not allowed to begin their journey between 10pm on Saturday and 10pm on Sunday. However, it is understood that the French transport ministry may be prepared to relax this rule if an agreement is reached within the next 24 hours. The main grievance of the dispute is over promises to drivers going back to 1994 to phase in reduced working hours (to 56 hours per week), increase waiting-time payments, and for retirement at 55.

The apparent failure of the French government to deliver for the drivers who work essentially in the private sector has meant them retaliating with a quick, well co-ordinated protest. The chaos caused is believed to be the worst to hit the French roads network since the national protests of May 1968.

A paralysis of normal traffic has been one tactic.From Bordeaux, travelling north in a clockwise direction, there are fixed lorry blockades at Nantes, Rennes, Caen, Rouen, Strasbourg, Riom, Chavanay, Avignon and Toulouse. The Foreign Office last night issued advice for travellers to France, warning disruption was severe with fuel supplies running low in some areas.

Commercial vehicles were urged not to travel through France if at all possible, as they are unlikely to be allowed to pass blockades. Private motorists should be prepared for problems where blockades have been set up on main roads.