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BRITISH authorities were trying to maintain contact with up to 450 British lorry drivers stranded in the Mont Blanc and Frejus Tunnels as a result of the 3,000 lorry blockades imposed last week by French drivers.
The British Consulate in Lyons told CM on Tuesday that two of its officials were stationed permanently at the tunnel areas, trying to alleviate problems for the drivers of the vehicles.
A spokesman said that they were negotiating on an ad hoc basis to try to get the pickets' and local authorities' agreement to let individual tractive units be detached from their trailers so that the vehicles and their drivers might return home.
They were also negotiating with local people, although the spokesman said they were generally being very co-operative and were providing food and shelter for some of the drivers.
For British drivers this week the safest route into France lay via the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, and the Freight Transport Association and Road Haulage Association were telling their members to avoid the tunnel areas.
Even then they ran the risk of blocked roads in 17 of France's 95 departments. At some points traffic was forced to zigzag in one lane only between parked lorries. The blockade by an estimated 3,000 lorries began as a protest over a two-week go-slow .by French and Italian customs officials which had caused long delays and financial loss for the hauliers.
Their call for Government compensation soon escalated into general demands for cuts in vat on dery and the lifting of restrictions on driving hours, reduction of red tape at the border and a ban on customs' strikes.
By last Friday night the situation was out of control as about a million tourists heading for the Alpine ski slopes ran into the blockade close to the Italian and Swiss borders.
Finally, riot police and soldiers were ordered to clear the roads to end a situation of lawlessness not matched in France since the Paris student riots of 1968.
British lorry drivers reported several bizarre experiences. One driver bumped his articulated vehicle across a ploughed field and through a herd of cows to avoid a jam. Other drivers had their tyres slashed and spent the nights huddled in their cabs in temperatures of —15°C.
Whatever the outcome of the talks this week between the drivers' organisations and the communist transport minister, Charles Fiterman, British hauliers should be prepared for a long period of disruption in France and other EEC countries, particularly Italy.
The border customs dispute is not over and a go-slow on the Italian side may resume at any time.
Geoffrey Cave-Wood, who owns a French haulage company, told CM on Tuesday afternoon that French motorways were at a standstill. The main Garonor Customs clearance point in Paris was jammed with lorries for miles. Mr Cave-Wood said he was sending his Italian traffic through Germany to avoid delays in France.
Mr Cave-Wood said that the French dispute was misunderstood in Britain. While the Customs dispute and dery tax had annoyed French hauliers they were also annoyed that as part of the Socialist Government's attempt to maintain employment, the working week had been reduced to well below EEC hours and records regulations, which were themselves being more strictly enforced.
• New measures adopted by EEC transport ministers should reduce waiting times at border crossings, Roland Dumas, French minister for European affairs, told the February session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
He pointed out that a new directive recently adopted by member states laid down that border checks should be carried out on the basis of sampling.
The same directive had placed a requirement on member states to keep customs posts on main routes open for at least 10 hours a day Mondays to Fridays and at least six hours on Saturdays.