Although Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, had indulged in sabre-rattling talk of a force of 13,000 men with armour, 21 helicopters and military transport aircraft to ferry them round the country, only three big roadblocks and about a dozen smaller ones were removed, leaving another 150 in place. The first and most spectacular operation was at Phalempin, south of Lille on the A1 motorway to Paris. There, some 500 riot police were deployed, advancing at 8am behind light armoured police vehicles with mobile cranes standing by.
Police cut telephone lines in the area and jammed CB radio frequencies. Two helicopters flew overhead to guide the operation. An army AMX-30 tank crew wound a cable round the towing hook of one of the first trucks. As soon as the tank began dragging the immobilised truck away, the hook broke. The riot police arrested one driver after smashing the window of his truck with iron bars. It was towed away by a tank.
Most of the drivers in the 150- truck protest drove away peacefully. Their strength lies in their mobility and, later in the morning, the port of Calais was surrounded by new roadblocks. Two others were dismantled, near Lyons and south of Arles in the south. Toulouse, however, was still surrounded by about 1,000 lorries and new barricades went up near Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand. About 50 new roadblocks were erected, often just for a few hours, throughout the country yesterday, interspersed with farmers' protests.
As the government began to take action against the drivers, it was feared that the mood was turning increasingly violent. One British driver heading north to the Channel said his brake pipes had been cut. Another said French drivers had thrown bricks through his windscreen. Peter Davis, managing director of Davex, a Lincolnshire haulier that has had nine lorries trapped in the blockades, said: 'There will be civil war. People are going to be killed - these drivers are just fed up of getting nowhere. They are so frustrated.'
The drivers began their protest eight days ago to demand the withdrawal of a new points-based licence system which they say threatens their livelihoods. But in Paris the government was defiant. Mr Quiles said: 'If they don't lift their barricades we will push their trucks out of the way.'
British holidaymakers were still heading across the Channel in their thousands despite the chaos. The AA said last night that Calais, Dunkirk, Le Havre and Caen were still badly affected and main routes to Paris from Calais and Boulogne were blocked. Clermont-Ferrand, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Poitiers and the Frejus tunnel between France and Italy were all reported to be cut off. Dunkirk and some other Channel ports were clear.
AA Roadwatch advised motorists to stick to 'D' roads, the French equivalent of 'B' roads; take a good, up-to-date map to help find alternative routes; pack plenty of food and drink and games for children; take extra French money and to fill up with petrol whenever they could.
The Road Haulage Association called on the French authorities to compensate stranded British drivers and to organise 'humanitarian relief'. It accused Paris of taking little action to clear the roads and uphold the right to freedom of movement across borders. It also asked John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, to press the French to organise aid for drivers who had run out of food and money.
After talks with Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, leaders of the National Federation of Road Transporters, representing the drivers' bosses, announced that they were confining their lorries to the garages from midnight to head off 'an escalation of violence' in view of 'the persistent refusal of the government to suspend the introduction of the points licence'.
For travel information, tel: (AA 0836 401904); (RAC 0891 700300); (Centre National d'Information Routiere 010-331 48943333).
Leading article, page 18
French militancy lesson, page 19
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