Angered French truckers reject leaders’ compromise deal

PARIS, Reuters

Most French truck owners angered over soaring fuel prices rejected a diesel tax cut deal their negotiators reached with the government on Friday, vowing to maintain blockades choking fuel supplies around the country.

A large majority of truckers from the National Road Hauliers Federation (FNTR) refused to follow their leader’s call to lift the blockades. Some said FNTR chief Rene Petit should quit.

Unostra, a smaller truckers group, also looked set to fight on rather than accept the latest compromise offered by Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot in late-night talks.

The snub was the second grass-roots revolt this week against the leadership of the FNTR, the largest group in the five-day strike, and the Unostra group representing small haulage firms.

The FNSEA farmers’ union, representing another sector active in the protests crippling 80 percent of all petrol stations in France and disrupting daily life, also vowed to keep up pressure on the government for a 20 percent cut in diesel fuel taxes. The French action led to similar moves by farmers and truckers in Britain, which has the highest fuel prices in Europe.

A first protest which halted distribution from the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell at Stanlow in northwest England ended before dawn when police ordered a wall of 75 tractors and trucks to be moved from the refinery gates.

But a planned blockade near Newcastle on the A1 motorway, a major link between Scotland and London, signalled that British protesters were starting to follow through on threats to copy widespread action that has caused chaos in France.

The French crisis presented an acute dilemma for Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who refuses to grant more than a 15 percent cut. Commentators called it a make-or break challenge to his ambitions to run for the presidency in 2002.

“We are not following President Petit’s call to lift the blockade,” Jean-Pierre Morlin, FNTR head in the Aquitaine region around Bordeaux, told Reuters in a typical reaction.

FNTR head Petit called for an end to the protest at midday on Friday, saying: “We think we should put an end to the movement.”

He said the government had made important concessions, including offering a mechanism to partially offset future fuel price hikes, and that “each crisis has to have an end”.

Gayssot also appealed for an end to the protests, saying: “I think the time has come to look at the situation with a lot of responsibility and lift the barricades.”

At least one closely-watched protest, the blockade at the Channel Tunnel in Calais, had ended and both tourist and freight traffic were moving, the Eurotunnel company said.

An opinion poll showed a surprisingly high 88 percent of the French were sympathetic to the protesters, who have choked off fuel supplies to four-fifths of all petrol stations in France and disrupted air traffic, school buses and garbage collection.

France meanwhile was under pressure from the European Union to respond to questions about whether it was violating EU law by not ensuring the free movement of goods.

“The French government is attentive to the consequences of these demonstrations beyond our frontiers,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret said. “This movement is not only French because similar problems have arisen in other European countries.”