Lorry drivers paralyse France

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The Independent Online
France was facing gridlock and imminent fuel shortages yesterday as the country's lorry drivers tightened their strangle- hold on road transport. Major conurbations, including Marseilles, Rennes and Bordeaux were effectively blockaded, and access to key motorways and trunkroutes was barred.

An estimated 10,000 lorries, about 700 of them British-registered, were caught up in the general paralysis, as the lorry-drivers' action entered its fourth day. Car workers at Peugeot and Renault plants were laid off because supplies of components were delayed. Bordeaux was said to be within three days of running out of fuel.

Drivers have targeted ports and cities with big fuel depots, oil refineries and trans-shipment stations. As well as using their lorries to form barricades, they are mounting "snail" convoys, driving their vehicles several abreast at slow speeds to frustrate the traffic behind.

The protestors - all haulage company employees, not the self-employed drivers who have formed the backbone of past protests - are demanding shorter working hours, retirement at 55 on full pension, and lower tax on diesel fuel. The main point of their protest, however, is a "contract" they signed with employers two years ago which, they say, has been implemented by fewer than one in three.

The contract was supposed to reduce their hours to a maximum of 240 hours a month initially, and to a maximum of 230 hours a month within two years. The second anniversary of the contract falls on Sunday, and it is due for renewal.

However, behind the protest lies a deeper fear. The contract replaced a national agreement underwritten by the government and represented a first stage in liberalising the French road haulage market. With that market due to be freed completely in 1998, the drivers fear Europe-wide competition could reduce their pay or put them out of work.