French fishermen win deal to end blockade

CALAIS, France, Reuters

Fishermen finally lifted a three-day-old blockade of French ports that shut the Channel Tunnel to vehicles on Thursday after protest leaders declared victory in a battle with the government over high fuel prices.

“We won. All French port blockades will be lifted,” a union leader told a cheering crowd of fishermen at Calais as he got news of the agreement on his portable telephone.

Within 20 minutes of lifting the blockade, all eight lanes of the Eurotunnel were made available, allowing many livid British tourists to return home. With some stranded tourists spending up to two days at Calais, the dispute is estimated to have cost UK industry as much as 5 million pounds, resulting in claims for compensation.

British Deputy Prime minister John Prescott commented that a long-term strategy needs to be introduced to prevent the British being affected by internal French issues. He is said to have contacted the EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio with regards to the possiblity that such a situation may occur again in future, and to discuss strategies for handling them. Unionists in Marseille and Normandy agreed to end their protest which had blocked ports and oil refineries.

News of the deal cheered British tourists at Calais, where scuffles had earlier broken out between fishermen and angry motorists stranded on their way home.

Trucks which had been backed up for more than six km (four miles) began moving towards the Eurotunnel rail shuttle.

UK ferry operator P&O Stena Line said it had resumed full passenger and freight services from the British port of Dover after fishermen began dismantling the blockade.

“P&O Stena Line ferries will now leave Dover and Calais every 45 minutes and will revert to their usual sailing patterns overnight,” the company said in a statement.

Earlier, the ferry company said passenger cars were facing about nine hours of delay crossing the Channel from Britain while truckers faced six hours of delays.

Britons were incensed at being caught up in a domestic French dispute and the government insisted this must not recur.

British deputy Prime Minister John Prescott wrote to French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot saying the blockade would have had a “serious impact on bilateral relations” if it had carried on much longer.

“The actions of the protesters are contrary to European Union legislation on the free movement of goods (and) will badly tarnish the image of France in Britain and elsewhere in the Union,” Prescott wrote.

In Paris, Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany said he had reached “a good agreement” with protest leaders who were seeking relief from a 75 percent rise in the price of their untaxed fuel to around 2.10 French francs (29 cents) per litre.

Jean-Marc Barrey, leader of the seamen’s branch of the CFDT union, said Glavany had agreed to come up with a compensation package that would ensure fishermen effectively paid no more than 1.30 francs per liter.

Glavany said details of the deal would be worked out by Monday. His office said measures would be taken to compensate fishermen for the fuel price hike “because of the exceptional difficulties confronting the industry”.

Agreement was not unanimous, however, with Marseille CGT union leader Mourad Kahoul dismissing Glavany’s deal as hollow. The blockade of Marseille port was, nonetheless, lifted.

Fishermen refused to end the blockade of a TotalFinaElf refinery at Gonfreville in Normandy, saying the deal favored bigger fishing companies at the expense of small trawlers. The port of Cherbourg was still blocked at mid-afternoon.

The blockade had hit the major Channel ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk and French Mediterranean ports, disrupting ferry services and blocking oil depots and refineries.

It spread to the Channel Tunnel on Thursday, though the protest did not affect high-speed Eurostar passenger services between Paris and London.