France's Truckers Choke Highways

PARIS -- Striking French truckers tied up commerce, choked the national fuel supply and blocked freight traffic through the Channel Tunnel on Tuesday as negotiations faltered and tension mounted on the country's major highways.

A car rammed a roadblock manned by striking truckers in northern France, injuring two strikers in the first reported violence of the walkout.

The two strikers were hospitalized with fractures after the car's driver refused to let them search his vehicle for commercial goods and struck the barrier near Lille, said spokesman Natale Benigni of the Workers Force union.

Strikers reinforced the roadblock, one of about 140 set up across the country, in their bid to press trucking companies for pay raises.

The strike, which began a year after a similar walkout paralyzed France for 12 days, also stranded truckers from neighboring countries and threatened European economies struggling out of recession.

The biggest syndicate of truck company owners said it would not rejoin negotiations with the unions on salary and work condition issues until Wednesday, rendering useless Tuesday's talks that included only a small number of owners.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told the parliament he would introduce a new transport law that would strengthen truckers' rights. He accused owners of not respecting an agreement that ended a similar walkout last year.

National road authorities reported no major traffic jams, with most roadblocks designed to filter private motorists through while halting commercial traffic. But implications for the overall economy and trade relations with neighboring countries were ominous.

Local governments in many French regions, from Calvados in the north to the Riviera in the south, commandeered gas to assure fuel for emergency services.

The strikers blocked all loading onto the truck-carrying shuttle trains under the English Channel. Even the British rock band Oasis was forced to cancel three French concerts and send its equipment to Belgium after its truck could not get past road blocks on the way to Paris.

France's neighbors have called on French authorities to assure passage for international traffic on its highways, across its six borders and from its English Channel ports.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair called Jospin and asked him to intervene to help British truckers. German Transport Minister Matthias Wissman said he asked French officials to urgently help German drivers.

In a 15-minute telephone call to Jospin, Blair also said Britain wanted compensation for companies that is still outstanding from the last strike by French truckers a year ago.

European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock said the strike's cost to France and other countries could reach 100 million European currency units, or about $114 million.

The European Commission told French unions to end their blockade of border crossings and warned it was considering legal action against France if truck drivers continue to impede cross-border trade.

Commission spokeswoman Sarah Lambert said the EU's executive body upheld the truckers' right to strike, but said stoppages should not impede the free movement of goods across borders.

The French economy was already hurting. The Renault auto factory at Douai, in northern France, was forced to stop production Tuesday for lack of spare parts, and sent its employees home.

The unions, representing the nation's 300,000 truckers, demand pay raises of up to 7 percent, though the companies complain they are squeezed by competition.

Jospin has not taken sides in the conflict and offered Saturday night to lower trucking taxes by 800 francs ($133) per truck in a bid to relieve pressure on the two sides.

The drivers want a guaranteed salary of 10,000 francs for 200 hours of work per month and a change in the number of hours worked, including down time during loading and unloading.

Owners argue they already fulfilled their commitments from last year's strike, including lowering truckers' retirement age to 55. Giving way further, they say, would run them into the ground.