Minister confident about resolving conflict with fishermen
French fisheries minister seeks EU approval for emergency assistance package as fishermen step up protests at oil ports.20 May 2008
MARSEILLE - French fishermen angry at high fuel costs on Monday blocked a Mediterranean oil port and stepped up protests at other Atlantic and Channel ports to press demands for government compensation.
The action came as Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Michel Barnier was in Brussels meeting his European Union counterparts, seeking EU approval for an emergency assistance package anchored in a two percent fuel tax applied to fish wholesalers.
In Marseille, fishing crews strung a drift net across the entrance to the Lavera oil terminal, at Port-de-Bouc, preventing boats from entering and leaving the harbour, the port authority said.
The eighth largest port at La Rochelle remained paralysed, including its fuel depot which supplies much of western France as fishermen kept up their protest launched on Wednesday.
Eight fishing boats formed a cordon at the cross-Channel port in Dieppe, blocking access to car ferries en route to Britain, an AFP photographer reported.
The action by the fishermen came ahead of a nationwide strike on Thursday called by public sector unions to oppose President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for pension reform.
From Pas-de-Calais in the north to Marseille, fishermen vowed to stage a show of force ahead of a meeting on Wednesday with Barnier, who had already promised "adjustments" to a previous rescue package at the turn of the year.
Sarkozy announced a EUR 310 million aid package to fishermen after several French ports were blockaded in November.
But the fishermen now say the aid is not enough to cope with the sharp increase in the price of diesel that has reached EUR 0.70 per litre, up from EUR 0.40 in November.
"This plan (was) very useful, but the price of fuel has risen very quickly, compromising the viability of lots of boats," Barnier said after the EU gathering.
"We are working with Brussels to obtain the green light," he said, adding that France wanted to "stick to (European) community lines" on this occasion after a 2004 plan to subsidise fuel fell foul of EU competition rules.
Other European fishing fleets are also struggling with similar market conditions, but Barnier said he was confident an agreement was within sight.
"We're into the home strait, we hope to be able to finalise a deal over the coming days,"
Barnier said, recognising the French fishermen's grievances as "legitimate".
"This is an emergency," said Emile Eouzan, whose six boats will remain at the Brittany port of Saint-Quay-Portrieux starting from Tuesday.
"With the price of fuel exploding and the price we receive for fish decreasing, our businesses are no longer profitable," said Eouzan.
Fisherman Jacques Bigot from the CFTC union in the northern Pas-de-Calais region said fishing quotas were also part of the problem.
"All of last week, the boats went out to sea... but we aren't able to cover the cost of the diesel with what we are allowed to catch," Bigot told AFP.
"The situation is getting desperate."
The crews from some 60 boats at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France's biggest fishing port in terms of tonnage, went on strike on Monday.
In common with other countries, France's fishing industry has been in steady decline, with 40 percent fewer commercial boats operating in its coastline waters since 1990.
Fishermen were also blocking the ports of Ile d'Oleron, Sables d'Olonne, La Turballe and Croisic along the Atlantic seabord.
About a dozen boats also set up a blockade at Cherbourg while fishing boats stood idle in the Normandy ports of Port-en-Bessin and Trouville-sur-Mer.
Production at a Total refinery in Lavera however was not disrupted by the protest action, said a Total spokesman.
[AFP / Expatica]