Provincial France close to economic collapse as revolt continues

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The Independent Online

Provincial France could come perilously close to economic and social collapse this weekend despite the decision of the largest truck owners' federation to lift its oil blockade.

Provincial France could come perilously close to economic and social collapse this weekend despite the decision of the largest truck owners' federation to lift its oil blockade.

With large swaths of the country now virtually starved of petrol and diesel fuel, there seemed to be no early end in sight last night to the rebellion against high oil prices.

A barely improved taxcutting package was accepted by a federation representing small truck companies but rejected by an organisation representing middle-sized haulage firms. A handful of refinery sieges were lifted last night but many members of the small truckers' federation, the FNTR, rejected their leaders' order to lift the barricades that have sealed off 102 oil refineries and depots since Sunday night.

They said they would hold out for more concessions with the other truckers, farmers, private ambulance firms and a shifting, ad hoc alliance of other fuel users - including, at one barricade, a travelling circus.

The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, was left with a choice between allowing the country to be brought to a standstill or sending in troops and police to clear the barricades. There was renewed speculation last night that Mr Jospin was prepared to take tough action.

There is a threat of food shortages and the collapse of school and provincial bus services from Monday; tens of thousands of people can no longer drive to work, and many provincial air flights have been cancelled. But the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre was cramped by a startling opinion poll in the newspaper Le Parisien that suggested 88 per cent of the French people supported or had sympathy with the oil price protests. Despite the widespread disruption, the protests have tapped a vein of public discontent with high oil prices and taxes.

There were hints last night that negotiations would resume with the farmers' leaders, perhaps today. Taxi drivers have already accepted a 4.5 per cent increase in their fares and have mostly abandoned their former comrades-in-arms.

Contrary to some misconceptions in Britain, this is not, and has never been, a union protest. It is, at its heart, a small businessman's anti-tax protest, which has been vehemently criticised by all five French lorry drivers' unions. The unions accuse the truck companies of exaggerating their difficulties to pursue a wider political agenda against taxes and the government's "green" policy to shift more freight to the railways.

Paris remains largely spared by the dispute through government action to keep open fuel depots around the capital. But the Rungis food market south of Paris - the capital's larder - has warned that it expects food shortages from Monday. If food supplies to the capital begin to thin out, Parisians can be expected to take the dispute seriously for the first time, which is all the more reason for Mr Jospin to act decisively this weekend.

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