France gridlocked as PM warns of anarchy

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The Independent Online
PROTESTS by lorry-drivers and farmers cut most surface links with south-east France yesterday. The demonstrations, now a week old, have plunged the country into a serious crisis.

Added to 140 road barricades set up by lorry drivers, the railway south of Lyons, the main line from Paris to the Cote d'Azur, was cut by farmers who drove vehicles or set fire to piles of tyres across the lines. Farmers lifted the barricades later but last night it became clear that they would be reimposed once again today. Four people have died in accidents caused by the lorry drivers' roadblocks.

In Valence, the Red Cross took charge of feeding stranded rail travellers. At Avignon station the army distributed military rations. In the Norman port of Caen, demonstrators stopped lorries embarking on ferries for Britain.

Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, repeated that he would not go back on new driving-licence laws which have angered the lorry-drivers. 'The choice is simple,' he said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche. 'Either we agree to live together in one society, which imposes a measure of discipline on each of us, or we let things go and let everyone do as he wants. Who could accept that?' Alain Genestar, the newspaper's editor, wrote that democracy itself was threatened. 'It's a big word, yet that is what is in question.'

There were signs of vandalism, if not anarchy. In Lyons, where petrol supplies were restored on Saturday by military drivers, pump filler pipes were cut in a number of stations early yesterday morning. Food supplies dwindled as fishmongers said they had no more stocks. Fresh meat was also short and growers were unable to deliver fruit and vegetables.

Lorry drivers said that sympathisers were bringing them food and drink. At a roadblock north of Paris on the A1 motorway to Lille and the Channel ports, they said residents of the village of Pontarme were checking lorries passing through and, if they were loaded, forcing them to join the barricades.

Such behaviour underlines a potential new danger: that the protests may spread to other groups, particularly those who consider themselves underpaid or otherwise underprivileged.

The drivers are opposed to the introduction of a points system for licences, similar to the endorsements in force in Britain and many other Western countries. They say that, as professionals who spend their life on the road, they are particularly affected. France's annual death toll is one of Europe's worst.

Mr Genestar and other commentators encouraged the government to be firm. 'Nearly 10,000 deaths and 200,000 injured a year is madness, a massacre. The duty of the state was to do something.'

The farmers have joined their grievances to the lorry drivers'. Opposed to the reform of EC farm policy, they have staged various protests recently and tried unsuccessfully two weeks ago to blockade Paris.

The rare trains able to run from south-east France to Paris passed along the Mediterranean coast and near the Pyrenees to Toulouse. The SNCF said up to 12,000 people had been stranded or were unable to begin their journeys because of the protests on the first peak weekend of the summer season.

The conflicts are putting the three-month rule of Mr Beregovoy, who has been getting high rates of approval in opinion polls, to a severe test.

The protests come as the campaign for the referendum on ratifying the Maastricht treaty, set for 20 September, is getting under way.

(Photograph omitted)