PARIS — Across France, cabbies, truck and ambulance drivers, barge captains, peasants, flower growers and members of other trades and professions joined Thursday in a common cause: an attempt to hold the country and its economy hostage.
The spark is the high, and still rising, price of diesel fuel and other petroleum products. But the gambit chosen by France's discontented--disruption of their fellow citizens' lives and livelihoods to force concessions by the government--is an old one here, and usually pays off.
"With just 100 vehicles, we can shut down all of Paris," was the boast of veteran taxi driver Thierry Lemerre. "Concentrate them at the Arc de Triomphe, and drive round and round slowly to block traffic. The police can't do anything."
France's spreading blockades against high fuel costs, which began four days ago, are rapidly escalating into the greatest social and economic challenge to face Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's 3-year-old Socialist-led government.
Rarely have French men and women from so many disparate walks of life joined forces. After a $135-million sop in the form of a partial reimbursement on fuel costs failed to win over the trucking industry, Jospin on Wednesday ruled out further concessions. But that seemed only to stiffen protesters' resolve.
"Things are getting stronger. We're still mobilizing," said Guy Petain, a leader of farmers in the Moselle area of eastern France, where peasants, truckers and ambulance operators were blocking two fuel depots Thursday so that trucks could not supply local gas stations.
Over the past 18 months, the price of diesel fuel in France has soared by almost 40%, to $2.95 a gallon, Europe's highest price after Britain. People in this country whose livelihood depends on the fuel are demanding tax rebates or other compensation so that their incomes don't suffer.
Their determination was whetted when Jospin's government caved in last week to fishermen blockading ports and agreed to a series of givebacks to defray the increased prices of marine diesel fuel.
"The formula is established: It's enough to growl to get something," was the acerbic comment of Ivan Rioufol, editor of Le Figaro newspaper.
Wanting what they see as their rightful share of tax relief, plus permission to raise fares by 3.5%, Parisian cab drivers caused monumental traffic jams Thursday by driving by the thousands at a snail's pace on highways from Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports to downtown Paris. Traffic was snarled by taxis in other cities, from Strasbourg in the east to Brest in the west.
"The movement is clearly getting tougher. Every day, there are more and more of us," Bernard Saurel, president of the local syndicate of independently owned taxis, told reporters in Nantes.
Throughout France, truckers and peasants kept up their blockades of 102 oil refineries and depots, the National Traffic Information Center reported. About 80% of France's 16,690 service stations have run bone-dry or are short of some products, Agence France-Presse reported.
The carefully targeted blockades have been taking such a toll on France's economy, the world's fourth largest, that a headline in the newspaper Le Monde on Thursday evening suggested that there is the threat of a "breakdown."
From throughout the country, reports of shortages and malfunctions flowed in. Rennes airport in Brittany is accepting only planes carrying enough fuel to take off again. The airfield in Nantes has no fuel at all. The Budget Rent a Car office in Lyons, the country's third-largest city, has only 10% of its usual vehicles available for customers because so many are being turned in with empty tanks.
France's post office is warning customers that it cannot guarantee usual express mail delivery services. In the Vosges Mountains, some school cafeterias have stopped serving meals because companies doing the catering can't get gasoline. In Lyons, garbage is piling up because there are no trucks to move it to incinerators or landfills.
At the sprawling Rungis food market south of Paris, some wholesalers report only three days' to a week's supply of food stocks. Some commodities, such as Muenster cheese from eastern France, are no longer arriving.
Talks between farmers and Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany went nowhere Thursday. The Cabinet official in charge of law enforcement, Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant, called on protesters to end the blockades but refused to say whether force might be used to make that happen.
One reason Jospin's governing coalition might deal with the situation with more resolve than otherwise is the hostility of one of its members, the Greens party, to further measures leading to increased use of diesel fuel. Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, a party member, said Wednesday that she had joined Jospin's government in June 1997 on the understanding that his policies would favor "clean air and moving away from road to rail transport."