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French Truckers' Strike Frustrates EU Partners

France's latest labor unrest has EU nations wondering about French commitment.

Negotiators for French truckers and their employers were back at the bargaining table yesterday afternoon, trying to end a strike that has choked French roads since Sunday and caused disruptions well beyond France's borders.

A union official told French radio there had been "positive advances" in talks Wednesday night, and held out hope of a "positive conclusion" by the weekend.

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The strike is making its mark: One-third of gas stations nationwide have run dry, and grocery stores in the east are running low on fruit, vegetables, and meat.

Like the UPS strike that threatened to derail the American economy earlier this year, the dispute between French truckers and their employers poses a real threat to France's lackluster economy. It also represents a delicate political challenge for Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who shares power with a conservative president, while his party relies on the support of pro-labor Communists. Mr. Jospin must bring this unrest to a close without alienating either side.

But the risks are larger than party politics. In the six days since truckers began blockading highways and oil refineries, deliveries throughout Europe have been disrupted, prompting rebukes from European Union (EU) partners Britain, Germany, and Spain.

The strike, to protest salary and working conditions, is the second bout of French labor unrest to disrupt Western Europe in a year, perhaps accounting for some of the impatience.

EU regulations require the free movement of goods and people. But the highway from London to Dover has become a virtual parking lot, as backlogs of up to 400 trucks wait to proceed through to the Netherlands and Belgium. Up to 8,000 trucks loaded with fresh produce have been stranded in Spain, unable to bypass abandoned French trucks at the border.

France's image may sustain long-term damage though, as its failure to quickly end the strike will raise more questions about its commitment to working with and within the EU.

France has unsettled its partners several times this year. The new Socialist government under Jospin reneged on a pledge to rejoin NATO's integrated military command. This fall, it unveiled plans to establish a 35-hour work week that had Germany and Britain wondering about France's pledge to meet targets for a single currency.

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And just this week, France fell out of step again, suggesting that the head of its central bank should become head of the new European Central Bank instead of a widely supported Dutch candidate.

Despite the disruptions, there is little complaining in France, as sympathies lie with the country's 350,000 truckers, who are seen as hard-working and underpaid.

At the negotiations, union representatives said truck company owners had agreed to a main demand, an hourly wage, but major obstacles remained. The truckers want a 7 percent raise in their monthly pay, to around $1,600, as well as compensation for down time while cargoes are loaded and unloaded. The truckers also charge that agreements settling previous strikes have not been honored.

The owners argue that further concessions could price them out of an increasingly competitive European market. On July 1, 1998, the EU will deregulate the trucking industry, allowing truckers from member countries to haul cargo between two or more points in another country. Under this arrangement, Spanish truckers will be able to bring cheese from Normandy and lavender from Provence to Paris. At that point, owners argue, no amount of concessions will protect French truckers' jobs.

The ultimate impact of the strike may depend on what sort of agreement is reached, and how much support strikers get from the government. William Kadouch-Chassaing, an analyst with J.P. Morgan, says, "If they reach agreement with strong government support, it could impact wages in other sectors and be an incentive for other employees to get more in their wage negotiations to come." Mr. Kadouch-Chassaing added this could put more pressure on the French economy, making recovery from its present slump more difficult.

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