Panic buying as blockade squeezes pumps dry

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The Independent Online

Petrol stations in several French cities were beginning to run out of fuel last night at the end of the first day of a national blockade of oil refineries and depots by truck drivers and farmers.

Petrol stations in several French cities were beginning to run out of fuel last night at the end of the first day of a national blockade of oil refineries and depots by truck drivers and farmers.

Pumps in Lyons, Grenoble, Marseilles and Toulouse were besieged by panic-buying motorists from early morning, soaking up several days' normal supply. Oil companies said that some stations had already run out of the most popular grades of fuel.

With private ambulances, bus companies, taxi drivers, waste disposal firms and even forestry workers joining, or threatening to join, the barricades in the next couple of days, France appears doomed to another week of oil-fired discontent. Talks with the three main road transport federations at the ministry of transport in Paris broke up last night without reaching a settlement.

Negotiations with the truck drivers, as well as farmers and taxi drivers, are expected to resume today. All the groups are demanding some form of government tax cut, subsidy or compensation for the world-wide rise in oil prices.

Their demands have been hardened, or encouraged, by the generous package of cuts in social payments and harbour charges given to fishermen last week to end their two-day blockade of French ports.

The first lorry and tractor barriers moved into place at the gates of refineries, petrol depots and ports at 60 strategic points around the country on Sunday evening.

By the morning, many refineries were besieged by a bizarre collection of heavy trucks, ambulances, tractors and coaches. The Paris area was spared at first but all the fuel depots around the capital were reported to have been sealed off by last night.

Lorries also barricaded access to the airport at Nice and Mulhouse, to stop supplies of aviation fuel reaching the airlines. Taxi-drivers blocked the centre of Montpellier but much bigger taxi demonstrations, to disrupt traffic in Paris and other large cities, are planned for Thursday.

After the usual government policy of non-resistance to organised social unrest, there was no attempt by police to keep the fuel depots open. The transport and agriculture ministers have promised some kind of help for farmers and hauliers but the first round of talks at the transport ministry appeared to have failed last night.

The Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, warned farmers "not to expect too much". He said a farmer using a tractor or other farm machinery could not be compared to a trawler, using thousands of litres of fuel every time it left port.

Lorry owners' federations are demanding a tax rebate of 70 centimes (7p) a litre for up to 1,000 litres, per lorry, per week, all back-dated to 1 January.

The truck owners complain that the rise in fuel prices and high French fuel taxes have made it impossible to compete with trucks from other EU countries. Diesel costs Fr4.70 a litre (47p) in France, compared to Fr3.50 a litre a year ago and Fr3.60 a litre in Spain.

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