French protesters extend blockades

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The Independent Online

Lorries and tractors blockaded oil refineries and depots across France last night in a protest by road hauliers and farmers demanding government fuel subsidies to match those given to fishermen last week. With taxi drivers planning to paralyse big cities on Thursday, and private ambulance firms threatening to join the lorry barricades, France faces a week of internal transport disruption after the two days of chaos at ferry ports last week.

Lorries and tractors blockaded oil refineries and depots across France last night in a protest by road hauliers and farmers demanding government fuel subsidies to match those given to fishermen last week. With taxi drivers planning to paralyse big cities on Thursday, and private ambulance firms threatening to join the lorry barricades, France faces a week of internal transport disruption after the two days of chaos at ferry ports last week.

Urgent negotiations were under way last night to cut short the refinery blockade. Transport ministry officials said they hoped to reach agreement with the three federations of road hauliers today. The French government has also hinted that it is preparing a package of subsidies for farmers - probably in the form of reduced social security payments and other taxes - to compensate for the steep rise of diesel prices in the past year.

The European Commission in Brussels has already warned that the subsidies given to fishermen to call off last week's port blockade are likely to break European Union law. The same would almost certainly be true of any subsidies given to farmers and transport firms.

Since all fishermen, farmers and haulage companies in the EU have faced the same oil-price rises in recent months, any compensation paid in France would amount to a state subsidy, which is forbidden by Community law.

It would, however, take many months for a European Commission investigation to be completed. The French government is presumably gambling that, by then, the globaloil price will have fallen or the euro will have risen against the dollar, which would have the same effect.

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