Leading Article: From blockades to Maastricht

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The Independent Online
MORE than the wellbeing of holidaymakers and the solvency of affected businesses hangs on the French government's handling of its anarchic lorry drivers. If it is seen to be mismanaged, either through excessive police brutality or, conversely, a reluctance to take adequate measures to remove the blockades, the consequences could be very serious: among them a majority verdict of Non] in September's referendum on the ratification of the Maastricht treaty. Much will therefore depend on the follow-up to yesterday's belated moves to clear away a few blockades from affected motorways.

The public mood in France is hard to gauge. There is evidence of public support for the lorry drivers. The new system of penalty points for driving offences, which started on 1 July and brings France into line with most other European countries, is not popular. The average Frenchman sees nothing wrong in exceeding the speed limit.

There is also some sympathy for lorry drivers, often obliged by their employers to drive more than 60 hours a week and 9,000 miles a month for modest wages: President Francois Mitterrand himself last week called them 'today's serfs'. The newspaper Liberation sees them as 'nomads turning into the new proletariat . . . caught between the government's regulatory hammer and the profit- driven pressure of their employers'.

Yet at least a minority of the thinking population must see it was time to reduce the carnage on France's road, where more than twice as many are killed each year as in Britain. The drivers' reactions have already caused considerable hardship and financial loss. If the public mood hardens against them, the strike will probably peter out. Meanwhile, government action must not be of a sort to rearouse sympathy for the lorry drivers, or for farmers making their own protests against reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Police brutality could precipitate violent clashes and the spread of sympathy protests.

Both lorry drivers and farmers were no doubt encouraged to take action by the government's record of caving in to almost any show of force. It happened in 1990, when French farmers were seizing, and even burning, British lorries laden with calves and lambs. A government aid package worth pounds 120m was soon produced. It happened with school reforms and with nurses' pay and working conditions last year; and with university reforms earlier this year. Violent tactics by farmers have consistently paid off: hence their shock at the real hardships now promised by a sharp cut in EC subsidies.

The central paradox of France today is that the country has, with the major exception of its unemployment rate of 10.1 per cent of the working population, weathered the recession better than its European competitors. Economic management has been sound, inflation is among the lowest in the world. Yet the French are deeply disillusioned with their politicians. As faith in the system shrivels, each interest group defends itself: it is, as Le Monde remarked yesterday, 'chacun pour soi'. Government failures to deal adequately with protests further deepen public disillusion. Should that process gather pace this summer, there is a real danger that the Maastricht referendum on 20 September will be used not to vote on France's place in Europe but to show disgust with the government.