Petrol rationed across France as blockade bites

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The Independent Online

Petrol rationing was imposed in many parts of France yesterday as the blockade of oil refineries by a bizarre alliance of lorry drivers, farmers, taxi drivers, coach drivers and ambulance operators rumbled into its second day.

Petrol rationing was imposed in many parts of France yesterday as the blockade of oil refineries by a bizarre alliance of lorry drivers, farmers, taxi drivers, coach drivers and ambulance operators rumbled into its second day.

Negotiations to end the dispute over high oil prices continued, but the French government said its room for manoeuvre was limited by European Union law, its finances and the fear of further "me-too" demands from other industries. Removals and waste-disposal companies and foresters were also threatening to leap aboard the oil-price bandwagon, set in motion by a blockade of ports by fishermen last week.

The Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, has already offered lorry owners a fuel-tax cut that would amount to a subsidy of £1,000 a year per lorry. This was rejected as inadequate by the three federations of trucking companies, who were, in turn, accused of "bad faith" and "political motives" by lorry drivers' unions.

Although Paris remains virtually untouched, supplies of unleaded petrol and diesel have dried up at service stations around the country as a result of panic-buying by motorists.

The government yesterday issued decrees in a score of départements rationing the amount of fuel drivers could buy and requistioning some petrol stations for use by emergency services and police vehicles. Motorists were limited to Fr150 (£15) of fuel every three days in some districts, and 20 litres a day in others.

The government appears to have taken a strategic decision to reduce the public and media impact of the dispute by ring-fencing the Paris area. Although no attempt was made to keep refineries and petrol depots open in other parts of the country, riot police have been deployed to keep the supply lines open from depots in the Ile-de-France, the region around the capital.

A blockade of the aviation fuel depot at Nice airport entered its second day without any attempt by the authorities to intervene. The airport warned it would have to cancel some internal flights from today.

Traditional French public and media patience with such disputes appeared to be fraying at the edges. The former prime minister Raymond Barre, now Mayor of Lyons, broke the omerta of the political classes, by saying the "perpetual demonstrations" were giving the country a "sad image" abroad. The rise in oil prices had affected lorry drivers and fishermen worldwide, he said, but only in France were they trying to bring the country to a halt.

The Socialist-Communist-Green government has said it will find ways of cushioning the blow of increased fuel prices but has warned the protesters that some forms of subsidy would breach EU law.

It is also limited by its own financial means and its internal coalition politics. The Green members of the coalition had been promised a gradual rise in taxes on diesel to combat pollution. The government is now being pushed into rolling back the proposed tax rises and even into making cuts.

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