Protests spread as French

PARIS, Reuters

Fuel protests gripping France threatened to spin out of control on Wednesday as the largest truck owners’ federation rejected a diesel tax cut offer and other sectors piled in with their own demands for state help.

The National Federation of Road Hauliers (FNTR) announced that a late-night deal with the government to cut diesel taxes by about 15 percent was not enough and its members would keep their lockhold on the country’s refineries and fuel depots.

The mood was militant out on the barricades around the country, where trucks held the fuel distribution network hostage and most filling stations were dry. Drivers either left their cars at home or waited in long queues for rationed petrol.

To add to the government’s woes, taxi, ambulance and tour bus drivers joined farmers in echoing the truckers’ demands for relief from soaring fuel prices. In Paris, boatmen linked up barges across the Seine to stop river traffic in the capital.

The protests looked like a chain reaction to last week’s victory by fishermen who blocked ports until they won a tax cut. Business leaders, environmentalists and editorialists criticized the Socialist-led government for giving in to pressure.

“The proposals formulated last night by the Transport Ministry go in the right direction, but they were deemed insufficient,” FNTR, which represents 15,000 of France’s 38,000 truck firms, said in a statement demanding further concessions. “FNTR transport companies have decided to step up their action.”

Two smaller truck owners groups were still negotiating with the Transport Ministry on Wednesday afternoon, but the defiant rejection the proposal met from the protesters made it seem unlikely the three-day blockade would be lifted soon.

“There has been some improvement, but it’s not enough. We need price guarantees,” said Loic Le Bail, Brittany leader for the Unostra group of small independent road hauliers.

In Dunkirk, truckers expanded their blockade to jam strategic roundabouts, cutting off all access to the port.

The Greens, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s partners with the Communists in his “plural left” coalition, denounced the government for giving in under pressure.

“It must break with the dictatorship of short-term action and use its budget surpluses to formulate an overall plan which shifts freight transport from the roads to the railways,” it said in an unusual statement against its own partners.

The employers federation MEDEF accused the government of letting protests grow so it could play a role in ending them.

Under last night’s deal, tax on diesel for heavy trucks would drop by 35 centimes to 2.22 francs (US$0.303) per liter this year, backdated to Jan.1.