Prague, 29 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Despite winning many of their demands, thousands of defiant French truck drivers today began the 12th day of a nation-wide strike that has begun to paralyze the country's economy and have severe repercussions abroad.
In France, there is growing fear that the truckers' "Operation Escargot (Snail)" could end up surpassing last December's public-sector transport strike that virtually shut down the country for almost a month. Already, the more than 200 truck barricades thrown up by the strikers at key points has made gasoline difficult to obtain. Ports are clogged with trucks unable to move. Some factories have closed because of delays in deliveries, and supermarkets report that their shelves are rapidly emptying.
In addition to tying up internal traffic, the strike has also stranded some 10,000 foreign trucks in France and its effects are increasingly felt in neighboring countries. In Spain, whose only land bridge to the rest of the continent is through France, the agriculture ministry estimated losses in the farm sector alone at $16 million a day. The cost to Germany was only slightly less. In Britain, supermarkets began airlifting fresh continental produce into the country. And as far north as Sweden, the Volvo car company said it would have trouble continuing production if the strike continued.
On Wednesday, after 75 hours of marathon talks, the truckers won a key demand for early retirement compensation. With the help of a government mediator -- and the promise of government money -- the truckers will now be able to retire at age 55, instead of 60, with 75 percent of their salary. The government has agreed to pay the difference to the truckers' employees. It also agreed to reduce tax payments by trucking companies if the money saved went to other benefits demanded by the drivers.
But strikers' demands for pay raises and a redefinition of their working hours to include time spent waiting, loading and unloading have been far more difficult to satisfy. Large and small trucking companies alike say that stiff competition makes it impossible for them to provide anything more than a one percent increase in wages (over seven percent already contracted) for next year. The truckers are asking for 10 times that amount. If a compromise is reached within the next few days, it's likely that the government again will have somehow to provide the money.
Similarly, with no agreement in sight on defining working hours, it is the government that will probably decide the issue. Last night, junior Transport Minister Anne-Marie Idrac said the government was considering issuing a binding decree on the issue and that she was working "very rapidly" on the question. At the same time, Prime Minister Alain Juppe urged a quick resolution of the dispute, but ruled out any use of force to remove the truckers' roadblocks.
One reason for the Prime Minister's caution is that polls show close to three out of every four French men and women support the truckers' demands -- while Juppe's popularity in austerity- and unemployment-ridden France is down to almost one in five. The public backs the strikers, despite the inconveniences they face at gas pumps and grocery stores, just as it supported last year's public-sector transport strike. And it does so, paradoxically, while fully aware of the fact that the money the government is promising to end the strike will eventually come out of taxpayers' pockets. The French are already the highest-taxed nation in Western Europe.
There is another French paradox playing an important role in the strike's duration. In France, as in most countries, it is against the law to block roads. But France is a country with a long tradition of popular unrest in the streets -- another reason why the government has made no attempt, or even a threat, to get parked trucks off the highways. So in France, it is not uncommon for the government to bend laws in order to avoid mass violence.
One official of a large French trade union put it this way: "There is a moment when social realities prevail over the law. That's French culture," he said.