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Once more unto the barricades

In the finest French tradition the truckers paralysed the nation - and triumphed, reports Tony Barber, Europe Editor
As French truck drivers took down the last of their barricades yesterday after paralysing their own country and much of western Europe for the best part of a fortnight, it seemed that France's unique tradition of civil disruption had won again.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the dispute was not the willingness of the truckers to block the nation's highways until they had won most of their demands, but the reluctance of the authorities to do anything to stop them. This was evident on a freezing dawn in the French border town of Tourcoing, where dozens of truck drivers in thick coats and leather jackets warmed their hands over a fire kindled in the middle of the blockaded A1 motorway to Belgium.

Determined but disillusioned, these were men fed up with the French government, fed up with their employers, fed up with long hours, low wages and being les forcats de la route - slaves of the road. "It's not a proper job any more," said one trucker. "You work 200 hours or more a month, and you still can't make ends meet. And if you break down on the road, nobody stops to help you."

The scene at Tourcoing last Thursday was replicated all over France, not least in the attitudes of the French police and ordinary people. Near the Belgian frontier, a group of cold, somewhat bored French policemen watched the truckers sip hot coffee and munch biscuits as they spent another day, quite literally, on the road.

As in the rest of France, it was evident that the policemen had no orders, and perhaps not even the slightest desire, to make the truckers move their vehicles off the motorway. What a contrast to Portugal, where about 100 National Republican Guards, some equipped with dogs, moved in rapidly last week to break up an attempted blockade by Portuguese truckers of a crossing-point on the Spanish-Portuguese frontier.

The reason for the French police's inaction was not hard to find. The majority of French people supported the truckers' strike and, perhaps more significantly, the methods they used to achieve their demands of higher pay, shorter working hours, earlier retirement, travel expenses, union rights and a ban on Sunday driving. At Tourcoing, the truckers were sustained by local residents who brought them food and firewood. Some even took the strikers to their homes so that they could wash in hot water once a day.

Across the length and breadth of France, motorway restaurants that cater mostly for long-distance drivers reduced their prices for the strikers. When the strike started to fizzle out on Friday, it was not because of lack of public sympathy for the truckers. According to a poll taken last week for French public television, 87 per cent of those questioned thought that the truckers' demands were justified, and 59 per cent supported their decision to blockade French roads.

Never mind that by Thursday about 5,000 of the country's 18,000 petrol stations were closed or barely working, because the strikers had blocked fuel depots. Rule Number One of life on France's roads is that Les Routiers Sont Sympas - Truckers Are Nice, once the title of the nation's favourite late-night radio show, and a slogan sported by millions of French motorists.

Hardly surprising, then, that the first priority of the centre-right government of Alain Juppe, whom polls rate as France's most unpopular prime minister of all time, was to take no action against the truckers that would offend the public. If that meant enraging thousands of British and other foreign drivers trapped by the French barricades and irritating other European Union governments, then, from the French government's point of view, it was a case of je m'en fiche ("don't give a damn") and a quick shrug of the Gallic shoulder.

Mr Juppe and his colleagues doubtless also had memories of 1992, when the then-Socialist government failed ignominiously to shatter a truckers' strike by deploying armoured vehicles against their barricades. The approach this time was to portray the dispute as a matter between the truckers and their employers, with the government as an honest broker but not as a strike-breaker or enforcer of the law that bans road blockades.

Still, even these softly-softly tactics had their critics. "Who's in charge?" raged the popular newspaper Le Parisien on its front page. The more stately Le Monde argued that the harsh working conditions endured by the truckers were the consequence of long-standing government policies that have favoured road haulage over the use of railways or canals.

In the past 10 years, the amount of freight transported on France's roads has risen by 50 per cent, putting an ever-increasing burden on the nation's 300,000 truckers. In 1993, they are officially estimated to have worked an average 62.5 hours a week. So much for EU legislation stipulating a maximum of 48 hours for most workers.

Eventually, even though the 12-day strike occurred in the private sector, it was the government that made some of the key concessions to the truckers. For example, the new retirement age of 55 for drivers with 25 years' experience will be financed partly by the state. The government has also promised to issue a decree soon on truckers' working time. This will ensure compulsory rest as well as full pay for all hours worked, including time spent loading and unloading vehicles.

In the end, the government will count itself fortunate that the strike died out without spreading to other sectors of the economy, and without leading to violence (injuries to foreign truckers notwithstanding). However, if one prediction can be safely made, it is that we have not seen the last of road barricades as a form of public protest in France.

Partly, this is a matter of self-conscious re-enactment of history - 1789, 1848, 1870, 1968 and all that. For more than 200 years, there has been no more satisfying way of flourishing authentic revolutionary credentials in France than to tear up a paving stone or barricade a road. Yet these days the roads are rarely blocked by political protesters. It is farmers with tractors and drivers with 44-ton trucks who cause most of the disruption, the former in defence of their privileged status in the economy and the latter because their working conditions have been genuinely arduous.

Even so, France is by no means the only European country to be gripped by road blockades. Only last Thursday, thousands of Greek farmers demanding higher price supports and fuel subsidies halted traffic between Athens and Salonika by blocking the country's main north-south road.

Nor are road blockades something unique to Latin or Mediterranean countries. Up in northern Europe last week, Danish drivers paralysed their country's trade, external and internal, by blocking border crossings and ferry ports for four days. If this dispute had gone on for much longer, British wrath might have directed rather more at Denmark than at France, because the cut off exports of Christmas trees, of which the Danes are by far the largest suppliers in Europe.

Still, if any country knows how to lay on a spectacular truckers' strike, causing maximum disruption to Europe, it is surely France. And at least some of the drivers huddled by their motorway fires up and down France last week confessed to taking as much pride in their industrial muscle as in their actual profession. "Would I leave my steering wheel for something else?" said one trucker. "You must be joking. If I quit, there would be 30 guys queuing up for my job in minutes."