Optimism on talks front as strike worsens

 

There was good news and bad news in the French lorry drivers' strike yesterday. The good news was that the UFT (Union of Transport Federations), which represents 80 per cent of employers in the French trucking industry, joined negotiations for the first time since the strike began on Sunday night.

The bad news was that as talks advanced the strike worsened, with more than 30 new roadblocks, including, for the first time, a barricade on the Paris ring road.

In the most violent incident of the strike, masked men attacked lorry drivers at Vitrolles, near Marseilles. The French Union of Petroleum Companies said 30 per cent of French petrol stations are out of fuel, with the south and the Atlantic coast hit hardest. Blockaded factories at Flins and Lille had spare parts delivered by helicopter.

Ms Nicole Notat, the leader of the CFDT trade union whose trucking branch represents the largest number of striking drivers, was so optimistic about the negotiations at the Ministry of Transport that she predicted a settlement overnight. For the first time, management yesterday pronounced the magic words "guaranteed monthly salary" - a principal demand of the strikers, along with the fulfilment of commitments made a year ago. Until now, employers insisted on paying annual salaries, giving themselves leeway to determine when and how long drivers worked.

In another encouraging sign, Mr Rene Petit, head of the main group within the UFT, said there was a desire to resolve the crisis on the basis of the Sunday morning agreement - which the UFT earlier rejected. Some commentators believe the larger companies are happy to let the strike drag on, in hopes it will push smaller groups in the cut-throat haulage industry out of business.

So far, negotiators have agreed unanimously only to condemn the violence that is poisoning the strike. At 4 a.m. yesterday morning, 20 hooded men attacked trade unionists at a blockade in Vitrolles with baseball bats and crowbars. Three strikers were wounded; one was hospitalised with serious head injuries.

Ten lorries from the TFE company drove through the barricade during the attack. The owner of TFE, his son, their driver and three other men were arrested. Trade unionists took revenge on the company by blocking another of its warehouses, hundreds of kilometres away near Bordeaux.

By deploying police reinforcements, the government had managed to prevent the strike affecting the capital until yesterday evening, when lorry drivers created a massive traffic jam during rush hour by setting up a barrage filtrant - filtering checkpoint - at the Porte des Lilas on the Paris peripherique for 90 minutes. All but two dozen of the 191 roadblocks across France allow private cars through.