Barricades are down as unions end lorry strike

Traffic is moving but the deal stores up trouble, writes Mary Dejevsky in Paris
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The Independent Online
The 12-day protest by French lorry drivers that paralysed much of France and trapped thousands of foreign lorries, appeared to be over last night, after five of the six trade unions involved signed government- brokered agreements on most of the drivers' grievances. Two outstanding claims are to be the subject of special government decrees in the next two weeks.

By late afternoon, the CFDT union said that 80 per cent of its lorry barricades had been dismantled. They included those on the crucial north- south axis at Lyons, and at Arles, on the main east-west route in southern France. The blockades on the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk were also lifted.

The deadlock was broken during an unscheduled session of talks yesterday morning, attended by representatives of the unions, the employers, the government-appointed mediator and, for the first time, government officials. The session had been called for the ceremonial signing of earlier agreements - accords which the unions had not judged significant enough to call off their action.

The signing ceremony finally took place in the early afternoon, at the same time as an announcement of the overall settlement. This includes payment of a one-off bonus to all drivers of 3,000 francs (pounds 360), on top of a 2 per cent pay rise. The only union not to sign was the militant CGT, which left the decision on continuing the action to union members on the ground.

The agreements allow lorry drivers to join other "elite groups" in qualifying for a full pension at 55 (after 25 years' service) and improve sick pay and allowances for overnight stops and meal breaks. The government has agreed to extend the ban on French lorries being driven on Sundays to foreign-registered lorries. It will also provide incentives to employers to respect a two-year old agreement on drivers' working hours.

In addition, the government-appointed mediator, Robert Cros, is to be retained to chair a commission overseeing implementation of the agreement. This is intended to ensure that it does not fall into the same disuse as the 1994 agreement - whose non-observance by employers was a trigger for the current dispute.

Aside from the bonus, there is a question about precisely what was agreed yesterday that had not been agreed on Wednesday night when the official talks ended. Certainly, the government took a more active role, and it supplied the text of one of its two promised decrees on working time, but its main purpose may have been to give the unions a graceful way out.

After the government and employers announced "the end" of talks on Wednesday, the balance subtly shifted. The lack of full agreement left the unions pleading for "just another session". Ministers dropped hints about the use of force - by denying, out of the blue, that they had any intention of using the army as was done in 1992. An attempt by the more militant unions to mobilise other sectors in the drivers' support had failed, so any thought of escalation was going to be difficult.

Although the protest appears to be over and traffic is already moving, the economic damage and the political repercussions will be felt for months to come. Yesterday, Nestle added eight of its factories to the dozens of other plants idle for lack of raw materials and components. Many building sites are at a halt, supermarkets have run short of goods, and many businesses have lost deliveries in the crucial pre-Christmas period.

On top of the direct costs of the settlement, in pensions for the drivers and extra subsidies to the employers, the French government also faces big claims for compensation from foreign companies and drivers immobilised by the dispute.

Last night, the UK Road Haulage Association, which represents 10,000 British hauliers, said that although the news was good for the British drivers, it was now time to focus on the battle for compensation.

"This is going to be extremely difficult, drawn out and complicated and I can't imagine the French government opening their purse and throwing francs at us," said Sydney Balgarnie of the RHA.

"But Sir George Young and the Prime Minister have backed our request and in the end it is going to be them who will be able to get the French to pay."

He said that one haulage company - Davex Ltd of Louth, Lincolnshire - had lost nearly pounds 240,000 in the1992 French lorry-drivers strike and that after nearly two years of litigation and lobbying it had received a settlement of only pounds 98,000 from the French government.

France, however, must now count the political costs . Other groups, including local transport drivers, are likely to demand retirement at 55.

The message that maximum disruption brings results will not go unheeded, and the government was forced to intervene in a dispute which, it insisted, was a matter for the employers and the unions.

The victory for the unions, however, is not unalloyed. They have learnt that, although three-quarters of French people said they supported the drivers, other sectors would not strike in their support. In their greatly moderated pay demands, they may also have started to grasp that, in the private sector at least, "one man's pay rise is another man's dole cheque".

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