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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Truck Strike Talks Collapse Over Pay

PARIS -- Striking truck drivers voted to keep up their 11-day stranglehold on the French economy on Thursday, defying government calls to return to work after talks with bosses collapsed over pay demands.

Truckers maintained almost 250 barricades on main roads and tightened a blockade of the oil industry after talks broke down around midnight. The strike has brought petrol rationing in some areas, closed factories and stranded hundreds of foreign trucks.

Unions said grassroots truckers consulted about the outcome of marathon government-brokered talks with employers were voting to stay on strike despite repeated calls by Transport Minister Bernard Pons to go back to work.

Pons said most truckers' demands had been met and the government mediator had successfully ended his mission.

"We've got the result of the votes from the barricades in 15 to 20 sectors -- about a fifth of France -- and it's 100 percent for continuing the action," said Michel Fleurot, strike coordinator for France's biggest union, the pro-Socialist CFDT.

Other unions, noting a gulf with employers over demands for pay raises, said the trend among their members was the same.

Pons said the two sides had agreed to cut the retirement age to 55 from 60 and reached accords on working time and sick pay, even though there was still discord over pay.

He ruled out using force to clear the truckers' roadblocks.

Pons said that despite the break in negotiations, a group made up of representatives of unions and employers would try to tackle the controversial issue of what could be defined -- and consequently paid -- as working time for drivers.

Firms pay drivers differently according to whether they are actually driving, are waiting to load or unload, or are resting before returning from long distances.

Pons warned that "if this working group does not agree quickly, I will propose to the government that we settle the issue by decree."

Leaders of main unions -- the CFDT, the Communist-led CGT and the non-partisan Force Ouvriere -- told workers to stick to their roadblocks. The state traffic information center counted 240 blockades on highways on Thursday, slightly down from 247 on Wednesday. Snow fell overnight in some areas.

Strikers completed a blockade of oil refineries with barricades outside the only one of 13 that had escaped the strike so far, an industry ministry official said. About half the country's 400 fuel depots were blocked.

Force Ouvriere leader Marc Blondel appealed to the government to make another mediation attempt. "The big problem is wages," he told Europe 1 radio.

The CGT said "the government is alone in thinking talks ended in success, allowing it to withdraw its mediator."

Haulage firms were offering a 1 percent raise and a one-off bonus of 1,500 francs ($300). Unions are demanding pay increases of an average 23 percent.

The roadblocks have forced closure of some factories and cut supplies of perishable goods ranging from fish to fruit. Farmers reported shortages of animal feed as grain shipments were hit. The strike was also disrupting mail deliveries.

The strike and a parallel one in Denmark caused problems in other European countries, clogging highways and ports and disrupting commerce. Ports in neighboring Belgium were clogged by trucks seeking an alternative ferry crossing to Britain.