Three killed on roads in French lorry protest

TRUCK-drivers blocked France's motorways for the sixth consecutive day yesterday. Their protest, against new driving licence laws, claimed its first victims as three people died when their cars collided with trucks blocking roads.

Already many factories, especially in the automobile industry, have laid people off because supplies are not arriving.

Not since the student riots which led to workers' strikes and an economic shutdown in May 1968 has France been so held to ransom by a social movement. Tailbacks on main roads were reported all over the country as travellers from Britain and other parts of northern Europe headed south on the first peak weekend of the summer season.

Adding to the chaos, drivers and farmers, who are opposed to EC farm reforms, blocked railway lines in some areas, affecting tourists who had switched from road to rail. The French national railway said last night that 10,000 passengers were stranded. Tourism officials said French resorts were expecting 30 per cent fewer visitors than the average for the first week of July.

In several areas, petrol has been in short supply. At a Paris oil depot surrounded by lorries, army drivers were deployed to drive tankers out and restore normal supplies. Others were put into action in Lyons and Toulouse.

For once, faced by military uniforms, the drivers who oppose new laws on endorsing licences which have long been considered normal the world over showed some respect for state authority.

The drivers' movement crosses union and non-union lines, meaning that there is virtually no one who can realistically represent them in talks with the government. So mediation efforts are conducted on a case-by-case basis, with local officials negotiating with individual leaders running each roadblock.

Near Montpellier two people died when their car collided with a truck taking part in a 'snail operation' protest, driving at snail- pace to disrupt traffic. At Melun near Paris, a Norwegian tourist was killed in a similar accident. The truck-driver in the Montpellier accident was charged with manslaughter.

The Justice Ministry said it was investigating an incident in the Alps on Thursday in which truck- drivers went after German tourists who tried to drive around one of their protests. Television film aired by the state FR3 network on Friday showed three drivers shouting 'we are the police' rip windscreen wipers and wing mirrors from the German car.

In Lille, on the main road from the main Channel ports to the south, the situation grew particularly ugly on Friday when 350 farmers were allowed through the roadblocks into the city centre. Riot police fired tear-gas at the farmers. They responded by driving their vehicles into the city's urban furniture, smashing bus shelters and the like.

The farmers said the police action proved that the authorities, who have so far tried none of the traditional strong-arm measures on the truck-drivers, were prejudiced against them. Other farmers have complained that fruit and vegetables are rotting because of the unrest, causing Le Monde to print the laconic headline 'Blocked blockers'.

Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, says it is his job to oppose violence, not to instigate it. The truth is that force against the roadblocks where, in some cases, hundreds of trucks are immobilised, would serve no purpose.

Inside Story, page 19

For travel info tel: (AA 0836 401904); (RAC 0891 700300); (Centre National d'Information Routiere 010 331 48943333)

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