Concessions end French oil action

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The Independent Online

French fuel supplies had returned almost to normal last night after the abrupt collapse of the six-day oil blockade imposed by truckers, farmers and other road users.

French fuel supplies had returned almost to normal last night after the abrupt collapse of the six-day oil blockade imposed by truckers, farmers and other road users.

As the blockade virus spread to Britain and Belgium and elsewhere, the French protesters - often grumpily and reluctantly - followed the orders of their leaders and dismantled the barricades at refineries and petrol depots.

The breakthrough cameearly on Saturday morning, when the government agreed to back-date to the beginning of the year an oil tax cut already promised to farmers from this month. To the fury of hard-line trucking companies, the farm unions immediately abandoned the barricades, effectively dissolving the blockade.

Two federations of lorry owners had already accepted a tax-cutting package tabled by the government mid-week. After the defection of the farmers, a third, more militant, federation, and dissident members of the other haulage groups, had little choice but to fall into line on Saturday and yesterday.

The hard-line truckers complained that government concessions - amounting to a tax rebate of up to £1,700 per lorry per year - were inadequate, hard to claim and better suited to the needs of large companies than small operators.

The cost of the deal to French taxpayers was in dispute. The government said £100m; independent estimates put the cost at £200m. Added to concessions made to taxi drivers, ambulance and coach companies and others, the total cost to the government of ending the crisis could reach £300m.

The political cost to the Socialist-Green-Communist government of Lionel Jospin might be greater. The concession of diesel tax cuts to the truckers - reversing government clean-air policy - has destabilised relations with coalition Greens.

The uncertain handling of the protests is likely to weaken Mr Jospin's popularity. The crisis has also revealed that, despite a three-year economic boom, there is widespread anger among the working and lower-middle classes at high taxes and the stagnation of real, disposable income.

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