Pumped up: a view of the forecourt from across the Channel

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Food shortages! Troops at the ready! Expecting to return from the south of France to find Britain under siege, I hurried to the market in Antibes on Thursday morning and stocked up on the absolute necessities of life, chiefly a kilo of luscious pink garlic. (If ever there is a nuclear war, I shall spend my last days under the stairs on a healthy Mediterranean diet.) Thus fortified, I flew home to offer my support to Tony Blair, who suddenly seems to have got over his need to govern Britain by impersonating the most popular boy in the school.

Food shortages! Troops at the ready! Expecting to return from the south of France to find Britain under siege, I hurried to the market in Antibes on Thursday morning and stocked up on the absolute necessities of life, chiefly a kilo of luscious pink garlic. (If ever there is a nuclear war, I shall spend my last days under the stairs on a healthy Mediterranean diet.) Thus fortified, I flew home to offer my support to Tony Blair, who suddenly seems to have got over his need to govern Britain by impersonating the most popular boy in the school.

It was a strange experience in France, where the British and their politicians are not universally popular, to follow the crisis at home and discover that Mr Blair was finally standing firm about something. The French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, took a more conciliatory line with his own truckers and has paid for this misjudgement with a catastrophic fall in opinion polls. Yet one of the peculiarities of the French fuel blockade is how normal life seems to have been there, in contrast to scare stories in the British press. When I called my friends in Antibes before leaving London, under the impression I might have to hike from Nice airport to their house with a sack of provisions, they were puzzled.

They had not run short of anything, and the only evidence of problems was a slightly longer than usual queue at the local petrol station. My suspicion is that each country makes conditions in the other sound worse than they really are, reflecting a deep-seated mutual antipathy and the smug notion that we (British/French) do things differently. As if to demonstrate how shallow this analysis is, my friends' boat was buzzed by an unusual number of helicopters when we sailed from Juan-les-Pins to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat a few days ago. We were mystified until we realised they were searching in vain for the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles, who had been staying on the same stretch of coast. Some obsessions are international.

Back in Britain, Mr Blair has been getting a bad press. The crisis is partly of his making, in that ministers are reluctant to tell the truth about our profligate use of fossil fuels. It is the poor who suffer most from this short-sighted policy, forced to use unreliable, over-crowded public transport, while the middle classes have come to regard travel by car, no matter how unnecessary the journey, as an inalienable human right. At the same time, big business has abandoned the railways, clogging up not just motorways but village and urban streets with dirty, noisy lorries.

Mr Blair should have confronted the protesters with the facts from innumerable reports and royal commissions, which list thousands of premature deaths from respiratory disease and a catalogue of long-term damage to the planet. Why was he so reluctant to do this? Partly because the only way to reduce reliance on cars is to improve public transport, an area in which his government's response has been slow and inadequate. Governments would rather pocket the cash from fuel tax than commit themselves to the level of investment needed to make people switch to buses and trains.

In doing so, they turned a blind eye to two approaching crises. One arrived last week, when a group of self-interested people tried to bully the government into making tax concessions that would have removed what little incentive there is to reduce energy consumption. The other lurks in the future, in the shape of a world wrecked by the selfishness of car drivers as well as hauliers. Too often in the past, Mr Blair and his ministers have been right, as they were on banning hunting with hounds and creating an ethical foreign policy, but took fright when their opponents organised against them.

If the Prime Minister has woken up to the fact that he cannot avoid upsetting somebody in a population of 60 million, then the events of the past week may be a watershed. It is time to explain to that section of the electorate which is ready to listen why green policies must be at the top of his agenda, with a pay-off in improved public transport. Prime ministers should be ahead of public opinion, not behind it.

It is not the job of a politician committed to social justice to appease narrow interest groups like truckers and farmers at immense cost to the rest of us. I warmed to Mr Blair last week as I did not when he was trying to pacify aggrieved landowners, Europhobes, vigilantes and other undesirables who despise Labour governments on principle. Seldom has such a noisy campaign of disruption collapsed so quickly, and the lessons for the government are clear. Forget focus groups. Ditch Mondeo man. And - this one requires a really deep breath, Tony - keep upsetting the tabloids.

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