Truck strike plays havoc with French economy, European trade

As blockades by truckers continue to immobilize France, the scene here 20 kilometers north of Paris resembles a teakettle just before it reaches a boil. For as far as the eye can see, lorries block all traffic. The drivers, most of whom have been here since Tuesday, protect their positions with scowls and cries of ''enough is enough - we won't be treated like dogs anymore.''

Police and riot troops stand by, peacefully for now, but ready for action. Government spokesman Max Gallo threatened Wednesday ''to take the necessary steps to assure the free movement of traffic'' if the strike continued.

The seven-day-old conflict has turned into a bigger crisis than anybody expected. Austrian and German truckers have joined the French protestors, and the West German, Swiss, and Belgian borders have been jammed.

In London, the British government has demanded compensation from the French for the nearly 300 British truckers trapped. Under pressure from the Dutch government, an urgent meeting of European transport ministers has been called for Monday.

Along with the growing international strains, the French government faces a mounting domestic challenge to its authority. The truckers now seem out of control. Calls by union leaders earlier this week to lift the blockades have only resulted in a tightened siege.

Thursday, nearly 240 barricades were reported around the country.

Worst hit was the Alpine region and the north and east of the country. Major cities, including Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nancy, and, of course, Paris were blocked.

''We are now faced with a kind of collective madness, a communal psychosis,'' said Maurice Voiron, head of the National Road Transport Federation and nominally a spokesman for the truckers.

Economically, the country was being slowly strangled. Thursday, Peugeot was forced to temporarily lay off some 30,000 workers at three French plants because of supply delays. Citroen laid off 14,500 workers, and Renault was also reported to be suffering.

If the blockades continue, food and gas shortages are not far away. Wednesday , police fought off an attempt by the truckers to close the access to Paris's main market.

But gasoline stations in the Alps have started rationing gas, and some shops said fresh supplies are running low.

''When half the country's stores are closed down, we'll have won,'' trucker Gerard Miette shouted. ''The government will have no choice then but to back down.''

Politically, too, the blockades present a delicate problem for the government.

Although the truckers say they do not have political goals - their demands are merely for lower fuel and insurance taxes and faster transit through customs - they have already succeeded in embarrassing the Paris authorities.

At first, the government had declared it would negotiate only when the barricades were lifted. Then it backed down and opened negotiations Tuesday while the roads continued to be blocked.

The government offered a nine-point plan, including the easing of border crossing procedures. But the truckers' said they would not budge until all their demands were met. Wednesday, the negotiations collapsed.

As serious as the impasse looks, the situation is not completely out of control. Opposition politicians have refrained from making political capital out of the affair, with neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac even appealing for calm before more damage is done ''to the economy and to public order.''

The left-wing unions have also refused so far to take up the truckers' cause against a left-wing government.

Still, the truckers potentially could spark a nationwide stoppage. Tensions are high in the country as a whole as such diverse groups as schoolteachers and coalminers have been protesting government actions in recent days.

The government seems confused and angry.

In response to the continued blockades, it toughened its position by calling off further negotiations until March 1.

The scene on Highway A1 shows how volatile the situation is throughout France. The truckers are big, burly men. They reject all compromise.

Like many French groups such as the often-violent farmers and small shopkeepers, they relish making life miserable for their uppity Parisian rulers.

''This is the only way the government would listen to us,'' says Daniel Polizuk. ''We have had it up to here,'' he explains, raising his hand violently to his neck. ''We won't take it any longer.''

What if the police down the road use their guns to try to drive them away?

''I'll turn my truck on them,'' a driver shouts back.

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