Patience of stranded drivers wears thin: Tempers flare and riot police called in as only tourists escape blockades that have brought French motorways to a standstill

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The Independent Online
Stranded British lorry drivers began to lose their cool yesterday, the fifth day of their entrapment in road blockades across France.

While tourists were gradually allowed through the long jams of lorries set up at major road junctions by French drivers protesting at a new licence system, the British drivers were having to sit out the dispute.

'We've been stuck here since Monday and God knows when we are getting out,' Paul Radford, a Sheffield driver trapped near Fontainebleau, south of Paris, said. Mr Radford, 34, on his way to Italy for Howe International of Sheffield, said his cousin's business was threatened by the blockades. 'This could drive him out of business. I only get paid for the work I do and I'm not earning my money stuck here.'

Derek Ovenden, 37, from Folkestone, Kent, said his brother's haulage business, O & M International of Ashford, Kent, was on the verge of collapse. 'He's now only got two trucks free and they can't carry on the business. It's a disaster,' he said.

'Some of us are running out of money now and we have still got to get down to Italy and back. There's been no aggro with the French and we have food and showers, but we are not happy,' he said.

The drivers said they spent their time sitting around and listening to radio news broadcasts. 'We've been here so long I think we've become French citizens,' Barry Tetley, 43, of Horsforth, Leeds, said. 'After this we definitely want a referendum on Europe. We've all had quite enough of it.'

On the relatively clear minor roads around Paris, British cars could be seen fleeing north. Tales of discomfort and delay were swapped at service stations.

Roy Williams, 51, from Witney, Oxfordshire, said he, his wife Annette, 42, and their 16-year-old daughter Sarah had been through 'hell'. He said lorry drivers deliberately misdirected them. 'You couldn't print what I think of it all. It's been hell and it's ruined the end of our holiday - we now just want to get to Le Havre and then home.'

Tempers flared elsewhere. On the A1 Paris-Lille highway, about 200 Belgian and Dutch trailer trucks were stoned by French lorry drivers as they were escorted by riot police away from a road block to the Belgian border.

Forty people were injured when demonstrators battled police in the northern port of Cherbourg. Riot police and other security forces were dispatched to keep some fuel depots open. The association of petrol station managers has threatened to close all 8,000 of its affiliates - out of a national total of 20,000 petrol stations - unless the blockades are lifted by Monday.

A coachload of schoolgirls from Belfast begged and pleaded their way through the blockades as they attempted to return home after staying with French families in Montpellier.

A teacher, Jackie Moneypenny, 33, said that being from Belfast had helped them get through. 'We told them we had come to France to get away from the barricades and we didn't want to see any more, and they were very sympathetic,' she said.

Veterans of the twin campaigns by the lorry drivers and farmers to block virtually all the main routes through France exchanged information with new arrivals to the Continent.

But those who have come through the paralysis south of Paris are few and far between. Ferries from the French ports were travelling light yesterday, with hundreds of people with bookings failing to arrive. The Calais Chamber of Commerce said that the port was bracing itself for a deluge of motorists as soon as the blockades were lifted.

Many travellers used the northern corridor through Belgium and the Netherlands to avoid the trouble.

(Photograph omitted)