The great thaw slows French trek home

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AVALANCHES in the French Alps caused traffic chaos over the weekend and yesterday, stranding thousands of French children who were due back in the classroom after the Christmas holidays.

Snowfalls and avalanches prompted by a sudden thaw caused traffic jams on Sunday afternoon as holidaymakers were driving down to the valleys to head for home. Although there were long delays, there were no reports of serious accidents or casualties.

Jean-Luc Delarue, the host of the Europe 1 breakfast radio show, reported that he took three hours to drive 20 kilometres (12 miles) as he attempted to reach the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice after a skiing holiday. Mr Delarue arrived in Paris at 6.30am, just 30 minutes before his first programme of the new year.

Traffic jams miles long snaked down the mountainside. The army in Bourg-Saint-Maurice provided motorists with 600 beds in barracks. While there were not enough sheets to go round, tourists reported that they had been fed on steak and chips and fruit in the mess hall. 'War is war,' commented one. Other stranded travellers - estimates went as high as 4,000 - were sheltered in schools and private homes.

Roads were still closed from Bourg to Tignes and Val d'Isere yesterday morning but were cleared later in the day. Snow-ploughs were also needed to reopen roads to Italy and Grenoble from Briancon.

Police said that some of the problem was caused by cars being inadequately equipped and their drivers not knowing how to handle icy conditions. Too few of the cars had snow-chains or studded tyres and many drivers slewed off the roads in consequence, they said.

Further north and in the south- west, continuing rains, which have caused widespread flooding in northern Europe over the past two weeks, forced the closure of roads and some schools, officials said.

The Marne, a tributary of the Seine, rose by two centimetres (nearly an inch) on Sunday and flooded parts of the towns of Meaux and Lagny, east of Paris.

There was better news in the Oise department, just north of Paris, where floods abated and 2,000 people evacuated last week were able to return home.

In the Dordogne region, a number of secondary roads were closed by flooding and authorities in the Charente Maritime department between Cognac and the Atlantic coast said they feared flooding there in the next day or two.