Truckers' union calls to lift blockades as gas supplies strangled

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The Independent Online

A leading truckers' union called on Friday to lift blockades that have strangled the flow of petrol in France for five days, causing havoc for motorists and even some air travelers.

A leading truckers' union called on Friday to lift blockades that have strangled the flow of petrol in France for five days, causing havoc for motorists and even some air travelers.

However, another union protesting soaring fuel prices continued to hold out on the demand for a lower petrol tax - the second highest in the 15-nation European Union.

A third union accepted a government proposal earlier in the week that Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had said would be the last.

After an overnight meeting with Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot, the National Federation of Road Transport, or FNTR, called for barricades put in place around fuel depots and refineries to be lifted.

Union President Rene Petit said that, following explanations provided in the session that ended at 3 a.m. (0100 GMT), "we feel that we can ask for the blockades to be lifted."

Petit said earlier that "truly important advances that correspond to our demands" were made in the latest encounter with officials. However, he did not specify what these advances might be.

The Transport Ministry, in a clear effort to show their had been no further concessions, said the meeting concerned "explanations," not "negotiations."

The FNTR's decision to lift blockades was not likely to put an immediate end to problems. The union must convince its rank and file to end the protest that has enlarged to include farmers, ambulances, and, on Friday, even tow trucks in the Paris region.

Meanwhile, taxi drivers - who also joined the protest, were given the go-ahead to raise their fares by 4.5 percent to cover the rising cost of fuel, France-Info radio reported Friday. The right to raise fares followed 10 hours of talks at the Interior Ministry, the radio said.

After meeting with the transport minister, Petit had said that "truly important advances that correspond to our demands" were made.

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

"We feel we have made significant gains ... and that beyond a certain limit that we feel we've reached, there are significant risks of things going awry," FNTR representative Jean-Paul Deneuville told the TV station LCI.

"We hope to convince the most radical (protesters) that continuing the movement does not serve" their interests.

Daniel Chevallier, head of the second protesting union, UNOSTRA, said that "right now it isn't possible to call for blockades to be lifted."

The protest was being felt all over France, with some airports, lacking fuel, canceling flights and long lines forming at petrol stations that remained open.

Nice Airport said no more fuel was being distributed as of noon Friday. Truckers were blocking Nantes-Atlantique airport in western France.

Desperate drivers were resorting to a variety of ploys to get petrol.

Those near France's borders were crossing into Italy, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland, to fill up. Long lines were reported at some Geneva petrol stations.

At a Shell station in Paris, businessman Louis Chevalier filled two plastic containers with fuel on Thursday - a favor for a colleague visiting from the central city of Tours.

"He's taking them back with him on the train tonight," Chevalier said.

The wave of demonstrations began in August, with fishermen blocking ports around France to protest rising fuel costs. After the government offered the fishermen help, others clambered for attention.

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

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