When trucks quit rolling
All across France, from Paris to Lyons, from Nice to Marseille, the trucks lay across the highways like abandoned toys. Not just one or two trucks, but three, four, five of them in each blockade, nosing together - the cameras showed - at odd angles as if a bored child had been trying to shape a new letter in the alphabet.
Their very arrangement was passionately untidy - passionately unreasonable. With the logic the French are famous for, a government spokesman protested: ''The roads must be opened. Traffic must be normal. This is the voice of reason.''
Once upon a time, way back in the middle of February, French truckers had been as reasonable as anybody else, especially the drivers of the rigs crawling up the Alps in low gear. Think of the reasonableness, the patience, it takes to do that! Then, as all those trucks approached the Mont Blanc tunnel, panting, ''Je pense que je peux'' (''I think I can''), suddenly everything stopped. The customs officers, it seems, had gone on a slowdown strike - without anybody in Paris telling them they were defying the voice of reason.
What dangerous folly this was! Can any of us civilians conceive what it means for a trucker to be forced to stop? Every driver of every vehicle becomes possessed by his or her own momentum - to move, and keep on moving. With every mile, you get a little more in the rhythm of the road, as if the road were moving and you were only keeping up. You must negotiate the oncoming curve, climb the next hill - complete the trip. To be asked to stop is like slamming the keyboard cover on a pianist in mid-arpeggio.
But, of all the wanderers in the grip of their journeys, truck drivers have to be the most compulsive. Sun sets. No matter. The next day dawns. Avanti! Only policemen or mechanical failure or the sight of other trucks at a truck stop can persuade these long-distance runners to take a breather.
When the customs officers, in effect, held up a white-gloved hand to the rigs converging on the Mont Blanc tunnel, a profoundly unnatural act occurred. These vehicles, of all vehicles, had to stop, like becalmed sailing ships dead in the water. Men who knew nothing but the bump and jiggle, the basso life-vibrations of their trucks, were made to sit still and think while their cargoes rotted.
The truckers thought. They thought, we are told, of the high tax on fuel. They thought of the restrictions on weekend trucking. Halted in the long shadow of a customs station, they thought of the ensnarling red tape of a border crossing.
Reviewing their grievances at leisure - hazardous leisure! - the frustrated became the frustraters. They turned their rigs, like soldiers in formation, and thrust them across the road. It was their turn to say: They shall not pass.
The rest, as they say, is history, or at least legend. What began in the Alps spread throughout France, and farther. Some 105 miles of blocked traffic was reported, backing up from Austria into West Germany. About 216,000 people are involved in trucking in France. All of them seemed to be illegally parked. The government declared the strike was an attack not only on ''the authority of the state'' but ''on the structure of society'' itself. No doubt about it. But a public opinion poll found a ''large majority'' supported the truckers.
Never mind the supplies that failed to get through. Never mind the businesses that began to shut down. Never mind the skiers, with their Renaults and Peugeots , stranded in the Alps - truck-bound. For a week the truckers captured the sympathy of the French.
When the press reached him, the French trucker had his own scenario ready. This was ''the revolt of the imbeciles.'' Anybody had to be an ''idiot'' to drive a truck 55 hours a week while the government employees tut-tutting at him worked 38 hours for more pay, and earlier retirement.
After a week the truckers straightened out their rigs and rolled on, with no specific concessions granted to them. But they could no longer say, as one had said in the beginning, ''I am nothing. I don't count.'' And if they saw themselves as more human, cutting in on a little liberte, egalite, and fraternite, that was the good part.
In any case, life will never be the same for French truckers or those they serve, who have learned that when you stop a truck, history really rolls. The voices of reason could make a nice French aphorism out of that.