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Trucker Strike Hurts French Economy

November 3, 1997

PARIS (AP) _ Taking aim at France’s economic jugular, striking French truckers manned scores of roadblocks Monday, choking access to ports, fuel depots, industrial hubs and border routes across Europe.

The job action, which began late Sunday after negotiations over pay and working conditions broke down, was a repeat of protests that crippled French commerce a year ago. Truckers from neighboring countries, aware that they faced being stuck on French highways, stayed away in droves.

A prolonged strike in France, Europe’s main highway axis, could slow Christmas shipments and hurt economies struggling out of recession. Italian truckers were threatening a strike next week.

``I understand why they want more money for what they do,″ said British trucker Peter Ellis, stuck in one traffic jam. ``(But) to be stopped and taken as prisoner is not really the fair way to do it, is it?″

Major traffic jams were reported Monday in every French region, including all routes to the English Channel ferries in Normandy and many important bridges. France’s road information service reported about 140 barricades around the country.

Most roadblocks were designed to slowly filter private motorists through while halting commercial traffic.

Authorities began gas rationing in some parts of the country, as truckers surrounded and cut off almost all French oil refineries.

European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock, calling the strike ``extremely significant in economic and social terms,″ estimated that it could cost $114 million and cut French economic growth.

The unions, representing the nation’s 300,000 truckers, are demanding pay hikes of up to 7 percent from companies, complaining they are squeezed by competition.

The government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, facing its first major crisis since coming to power in June, sought to get trucking owners back to the bargaining table early Tuesday.

Jehan de Marne, head of the Union of Transport Federations, which represents 80 of the nation’s trucking companies, pronounced the group ``favorable to the idea,″ but said he had to consult with member companies.

``Our companies are on a razor’s edge; we can’t give anymore,″ a stern-faced Jean-Louis Amato, head of the trucking owners’ federation Unostra, told reporters before meeting with Transport Minister Jean-Luc Gayssot.

Gayssot stayed cloistered in his ministry Monday and declined to comment to reporters.

Police intervened at least twice overnight Sunday to keep highway crossings into Spain open, but the unions vowed to keep up efforts to halt all cross-border commercial traffic.

The French toy industry worried the strike could deal them a serious blow. ``Our sector makes 70 percent of its revenue in the last two months of the year,″ said the French Federation of Toy Industries. It demanded truckers and owners ``find a solution as soon as possible.″

Jospin has not taken sides in the trucker struggle, and offered Saturday night to lower trucking taxes by $133 per truck to relieve pressure on the two sides. But the offer was not enough to bring the owners back to the table Sunday.

The drivers want a guaranteed salary of $1,600 for 200 hours of work a month and a change in the number of hours worked, including down time during loading and unloading.

Owner representatives argue that they already lowered truckers’ retirement age to 55 and can give no further concessions.

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