Paris fails to clinch deal with lorry protesters

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The Independent Online
FOR A few hours yesterday, it looked as though the French government had won. It had conceded a few points to defuse the protests by lorry-drivers that have made France a byword for chaos over the past week.

Jean-Louis Bianco, the Transport Minister, and Martine Aubry, the Labour Minister, reached an agreement with drivers' unions and freight-company operators, promising to study working hours and the application of the new laws on licence endorsements for professional drivers.

It was a classic compromise in a tradition going back to May 1968 when student riots, followed by worker solidarity, brought the country to a halt. Since then, successive governments have retreated before the threat of force.

It was the sort of compromise that many opposition politicians have called for. It is also the sort of retreat that they will no doubt hold up to ridicule in the next few months, especially as the campaign for National Assembly elections next March gets under way.

At first, yesterday morning, it looked as though the manoeuvre had worked. The unions called on the drivers to give up.

With riot police advancing, many of the biggest roadblocks across the country disintegrated and the drivers moved away. But, as the government knew, many of them have no union loyalty, taking orders only from a nebulous 'co- ordination' and the worst fears materialised: new roadblocks formed and the government found itself in a new stalemate.

What had looked like the end of the day for the swaggering bosses of the barricades, the pot-bellied drivers' leaders with nicknames such as 'Tarzan' and 'Naf-Naf', was just an interlude.

Although the drivers had begun to turn their opposition to the new licence laws into a generalised complaint about their working lives, they now decided to go back to first bases. 'You mustn't mix these things,' said one driver. 'Working conditions and licences. All we have to say is 'no' to the points licence.'

The one constant over the past week has been the solidarity of the French media with the government. Claude Imbert, the editor of the conservative weekly Le Point, pointed out yesterday that the new licence laws, designed to cut appalling road-accident statistics, were in the public interest. That the government could not put such a measure through without resistance was a sign that the 11-year Socialist rule of President Francois Mitterrand was 'tired and worn', he said, and a sign of 'an ungovernable France'.

Mr Mitterrand himself, fresh from his daring visit to Sarajevo a week before his wife, Danielle, escaped a bomb attack in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been in Munich for the Group of Seven summit meeting since Sunday night, when the police first began to move against the roadblocks. But any hope that the crisis would be over by the end of today, when Mr Mitterrand returns to Paris, seems to have been in vain.

The most colourful aspect in dealing with the protests so far has been the decision to use the army, albeit in a non-repressive role. Tanks have been shown in action tugging lorries along the motorways, tank-transporters have been used to carry driverless vehicles off, and army drivers have driven petrol-tankers past roadblocks unchallenged to ensure that the large cities are fully supplied.

The use of the army is authorised by what is known as 'an interministerial instruction'. Dealing with 'the participation of the armed forces in the maintenance of public order', its use 'against workers struggling for their rights' has been condemned by the Communist CGT union. However, a mainstream police union praised the army's role in enforcing 'the laws of the Republic and freedom of movement'.