Lorry protests leave French economy dented

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PROTESTS by French lorry-drivers began to peter out yesterday after representatives of road-haulage firms signed an agreement with the government on safety and working conditions.

Most of the roadblocks, which made havoc of the July tourist departures for 10 days and threatened to paralyse France entirely, were dismantled - although diehards in some areas tried to keep the movement going. The motorways from the main Channel ports to the Cote d'Azur and the Spanish frontier were clear yesterday.

The protests, apart from ruining the start of many holidays, caused serious economic damage. Many French resorts are reporting up to 60 per cent cancellations for the beginning of the summer season. Some factories closed or went on short-time, including Peugeot, Renault and Michelin. A number of smaller firms face bankruptcy because of a week's lost production.

The protests, against a new driving licence 'points' system, may have left political scars which could affect the result of the referendum on the Maastricht treaty on 20 September. An opinion poll in today's Paris Match, taken before the full brunt of the truckers' action was felt, showed that a growing number of French people were thinking of voting against ratification of the treaty.

In addition, opponents of ratification in the Gaullist RPR party, which is badly split on Maastricht, have published their campaign schedule, 12 public meetings with other like-minded conservatives over the summer.

Under the leadership of Philippe Seguin in the National Assembly and Charles Pasqua, the former interior minister, in the Senate, the 'no' movement has attracted well over a third of Gaullist politicians. Jacques Chirac, the party leader, was booed at an RPR conference at the weekend when he said he would vote for Maastricht.

The Paris Match poll showed that 42 per cent of voters planned to vote for Maastricht and 32 per cent were against. The other 26 per cent had not made up their minds or planned to abstain. This is the highest tally of 'no' voters registered since President Francois Mitterrand announced the referendum just over a month ago.

The Socialist government, already unpopular, needed a period of calm to put over its pro-Maastricht arguments. This prospect has been shattered by the truckers' demonstrations and farmers' protests which started earlier and are likely to intensify. The French media support the new driving licences, but paint a picture of a hesitant and fumbling administration which could not come to grips with the drivers' challenge.

Parliament calmly continued its business before recessing for the summer on Tuesday without ever debating drivers' action. The French see the body as less and less relevant.

The conflict may have done untold social damage. The police, who managed to dismantle most of the barricades without violence, nevertheless used their truncheons and tear-gas launchers to the full in some areas. A photograph on the front page of Le Figaro yesterday showed a policeman officer near Lyons pointing his pistol at a driver.

(Photograph omitted)