Chaos on French highways as 'yellow vests' torch toll booths

A Vinci worker cleaning up around a damaged payment booth.
A Vinci worker cleaning up around a damaged payment booth.PHOTO: AFP
A Vinci worker stands near a broken window a day after the highway toll was set on fire in Bandol, near Marseille.
A Vinci worker stands near a broken window a day after the highway toll was set on fire in Bandol, near Marseille.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS) - French "yellow vest" protesters occupied highway toll booths, setting a number on fire and causing transport chaos in parts of the country days before the Christmas holidays getaway.

France's biggest toll road operator, Vinci Autoroutes , said there were demonstrations at about 40 sites along its network and that some highway intersections had been damaged.

Protesters set fire overnight to the Bandol toll station, east of Marseille, forcing the closure of the A50 highway that connects Marseille and Toulon, said Vinci, whose network is mainly in the south and west of France.

"Motorists should take utmost care as they approach toll gates and motorway access ramps due to the presence of numerous pedestrians," Vinci said in a statement.

Several people have died in roadside accidents at yellow vest roadblocks in recent weeks, mostly at the many roundabouts blocked by groups of demonstrators.

The "yellow vests" protesters - named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists must have in their cars - have blocked roads and roundabouts across France since mid-November.

The demonstrations began as a protest against fuel tax increases, but have morphed into a wider backlash against the liberal economic policies of French President Emmanuel Macron.

 
 
 
 

Protesters took to the streets of Paris and other cities on Saturday in a fifth weekend of demonstrations, though they were noticeably smaller than in previous weeks after Macron announced tax and salary concessions.

COSTLY DAMAGE

Protesters angry about high fuel costs and new speed limits have also covered, damaged or torched hundreds of traffic radars across France.

Radars-auto.com, a site that tracks traffic radars, estimated that by the middle of last week at least 1,600 radars, about half of all French traffic radars, had been damaged. More than 250 have been entirely destroyed, it said.

The French state will also lose several tens of millions of euros in revenues, it said, adding that in 2017 the radars had yielded on average €84 million (S$113 million) a month.

Vinci estimates the damages to its installations will cost"several tens of millions" of euros since the start of the protests, not including lost revenue, as the protesters have allowed thousands of motorists on to the highways for free.

It had planned to send invoices to motorists who drove through toll booths without paying and whose licence plates were captured on surveillance cameras, but on Tuesday backed down.

"This procedure, no doubt poorly explained and therefore misunderstood, generated a strong negative reaction. Vinci Autoroutes has decided against applying the measure," the company said in a statement.