Police stop tunnel blockade by French farmers

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The Independent Online

French police stopped protesting farmers from blockading the entrance to the Channcel tunnel as demonstrations over the price of fuel in France escalated.

French police stopped protesting farmers from blockading the entrance to the Channcel tunnel as demonstrations over the price of fuel in France escalated.

The FNSEA farmers union sent tractors to the entrance of the Channel Tunnel to try to block freight transport from crossing to England.

But police, who had also failed to intervene in previous blockades by fishermen at Channel ferry ports, stopped about 20 tractors from nearing the entrance.

Officers set up roadblocks to stop tractors reaching the tunnel's freight terminal near Calais.

The move was in stark contrast to last week's tunnel blockade by fishermen when police at the scene stood by while protesters prevented angry British travellers from entering the tunnel.

Other professions, including taxi drivers and farmers, have joined the expanding strike.

More French petrol stations put up empty signs today as the French truckers' protest over the high cost of fuel spread. Taxi drivers joined in by planning to disrupt Paris traffic.

Truckers stepped up their blockade of the nation's fuel depots yesterday after the government said no to further compromise and demanded an end to protests that began Monday.

French truckers have sealed off roads to nearly 100 of the country's oil refineries and fuel depots to protest soaring fuel prices and high taxes. After Britain, France has the second highest fuel taxes in the 15-nation European Union.

Parisian taxi drivers also planned a new "Operation Escargot": driving at snail's pace into the city from the airports to annoy other drivers. With fuel in France growing scarce in a growing number of regions, some drivers crossed into neighboring countries to fill their tanks.

Flights have been canceled or rerouted at the Lyon airport and hundreds of petrol stations have had to close. Still others have been ordered to save their fuel for police, hospital and emergency vehicles.

School cafeterias in the Vosges region faced shortages as food suppliers ran out of petrol for their trucks, Le Parisien newspaper reported Wednesday. Rental car agencies in some regions had to turn away clients.

"We have barely any gas to offer to clients," said Davy Vasquez, an employee at the Budget agency in the western city of Nantes.

Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot asked protesters to think of the potential disastrous effects on the national economy, which has rebounded in past years after a decade-long stagnation.

"If we let things go on, that could break the process of growth and development that's going on in our country," Gayssot told RTL radio.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's was sharp with the truckers, saying the government would go "no farther" and saying there would be no more negotiations.

The prime minister's ultimatum came after his Green Party allies said his concessions broke promises to promote environmental policies. The Greens say France should favour rail traffic over the more polluting trucks to carry freight.

The government has offered to give truckers a 35-centime (5-cent) reimbursement per litre of fuel this year, and a 25-centime (3.5-cent) refund per litre on gasoline taxes next year.

Two of France's three principal freight unions refused to accept the government's offer yesterday, while one accepted.

Truckers say the cost of diesel fuel has risen 40 percent in the past year. One litre of diesel fuel in France costs 5.45 francs per litre (dlrs 2.84 per gallon), compared to a current average of 2.9 francs per litre (dlrs 1.58 francs per gallon) in the United States.