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In Britain, It's Anything but a Gas, Gas, Gas

Protests leave gas stations high and dry, but markets don't hit the panic button, yet.

Perhaps it was the ignominy of being called cowards by the French, but the British have discovered the art of direct action and in doing so have managed to paralyze their country in the past four days.

U.K. gasoline stations say they are now in danger of running out of fuel within 24 hours. The stations are not receiving deliveries because tanker drivers refuse to cross picket lines around refiners. These have been set up by small groups of truckers and farmers to force the government to lower fuel taxes.

As a result, the the world's fifth-largest economy is threatened by a shutdown that would cripple the profits of both British companies and companies that do business in the U.K.

Ford

(F) - Get Report

today said it will shut one of its plants tomorrow, according to

Bloomberg

.

If the government is not able to quickly engineer a compromise with the protestors or force through a solution, the result could be serious economic pain. "You can, of course, cripple the economy completely," says Claus Baader, senior international economist at

Lehman Brothers

. "You can imagine after a week the grocery stores will be running out of produce, people could be faced with a situation where they can't get to work -- it could bring manufacturing to an absolute standstill."

Despite this dire possibility, the fuel crisis has so far had little effect on the U.K. stock market. The benchmark

FTSE 100 Index

fell a scant 26.5 to 6555.5 today. Nor has the trouble sparked major worries in U.S. markets. But with 5.6% of U.S. exports going to Britain, an economic meltdown would cut heavily into the profits of companies already struggling with the weak euro and pound.

The crisis follows protests in France last week by truck drivers similarly complaining about the high level of fuel duties. As is often the case in France, the government quickly began caving in to the demands of the protestors, who branded the British "cowards" because U.K. holidaymakers had the effrontery to complain about being stranded on the wrong side of the English Channel by the protests.

The ripple effect of the French strikes has taken everyone, especially the U.K. government, by surprise, largely because they have great sympathy with the plight of the trucking industry and motorists in general.

The result has been chaos. The U.K. is almost a gas-free zone. Hospitals are closing, ambulances are scaling down nonurgent services, schools are closing and trash is not being collected. Many businesses also have begun considering scaling back operations.

Gasoline stations say that without deliveries, they will run out of fuel within the next 24 hours.

British Petroleum

and

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Texaco

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are both saying their stations are 67% empty;

Total Fina

says its are 90% empty. For some, the long lines for gasoline -- there are reports of two-mile backups -- recall an earlier crisis.

"I don't remember seeing anything like it since '78 in America," says Ed Gale, a trader at

Jefferies'

London office.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, looking a little like a deer caught in the headlights of one of the protesting trucks, says in no uncertain terms that it won't give in to the demonstrators. Instead, it has been on a charm offensive, trying to win the public's backing by saying that it is OPEC's fault for the rise in gas prices. (This is difficult, though, because Britain happens to be a net exporter of energy.) The government has also countered that if it cut fuel taxes it would not be able to fund recent spending increases for health and education.

Blair called emergency meetings in London on Tuesday with the oil companies and police to bang their heads together and get the gas to the pumps. In a statement on Tuesday evening, he said that "within 24 hours" things would be partly back to normal.

Bravado? Perhaps. Unfortunately for the government there is widespread discontent with the cost of gas. Blair's labor party pushed through an increase in the gasoline tax when oil prices were near their nadir and now the piper's sending the check. The U.K. is by the far the most expensive place in Europe to buy gas -- it costs just over $1.20 per liter for gas compared with $1.10 in France. In the U.S. gas runs about 40 cents per liter. And so far the British public appears largely behind the protests, although its patience has not yet been sorely tested by shortages.

Moreover, the government has hampered its ability to deal with the crisis by taking a hard line. After the French government gave in to protesters, the British government had some tough talk for anyone who would try similar tactics in the U.K.

"In Britain, decisions are made in budgets, not in blockades," said Chancellor of the Exchequer

Gordon Brown

.

"They've painted themselves into the corner," Gale says of the government. "If they cave in, they will look like complete idiots."

As such, the next 24 hours will indeed be crucial and test the willingness of the tanker drivers to cross the picket lines at the gas stations and the willingness of the police to break up the protests. In essence, it will decide whether this remains a very British affair or degenerate into the anarchy so beloved by the French.

Elsewhere in Europe

In other areas of Europe, there are blockades in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, despite growing consternation from the transport industry due to rising fuel costs, Germany remains relatively calm. Owing perhaps to the Teutonic preference for consensus and consultation, protests have been small and isolated.

Whereas large-scale protests and disobedience are accepted as forms of valid civil expression in France, the Germans take a more orderly approach. Only this week have truckers and taxi drivers begun to support more direct action in the western part of the country near the French border.

The federal government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens continues to present a hard front to demands for lower energy costs, however. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Hans Eichel said there was no room for tax cuts along with the government's stringent plans to reduce spending. The administration also said an unpopular "ecology tax" on gasoline and other fuels would not be lifted.

Marc Young contributed to this story.