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FISHING

ANALYSIS: ‘We’re ready for war’ – How far will France’s post-Brexit fishing row with Jersey go?

War has been declared between France (population 66,000,000) and the Bailiwick of Jersey (population not quite 100,000), writes John Lichfield as he examines the gravity of the latest cross-Channel fishing flare up.

ANALYSIS: 'We're ready for war' - How far will France's post-Brexit fishing row with Jersey go?
Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

For now, it is a war of words. However, the French minister for the sea, no less, has warned that she will, if necessary, switch off the lights in France’s tiny, troublesome near neighbour.

Over 90 percent of the tiny UK crown dependancy’s electricity comes through three cables from France just over 12 miles away.

What’s it all about? Fish of course. And Brexit.

Who is right and who is wrong?

It is complicated. Fisheries are always complicated, even slippery.

There is some right and some wrong on both sides but, as far as I can establish, the Jersey government has behaved oddly – provocatively and with less than complete honesty. There is no similar problem between France and the other big Channel Island, Guernsey.

The French government suspects that Boris Johnson’s government has engineered the dispute as part of a wider campaign of minor harassment of French fishing boats to distract from its own surrender on fisheries rights in the Brexit deal just before Christmas.

The UK government says that fisheries rights in Jersey waters are an entirely an affair for the island’s (or bailwick’s) government. Britain is responsible only for the Channel Islands’ diplomatic relations and has been seeking to broker a deal for Jersey with the EU and France.

That may be legally correct. The Channel Islands are the only fragment of Duke William’s dukedom to have remained independent of France. They are “owned” by the Queen but they are not part of the UK and were never part of the European Union.

The present dispute has similarities, however, with a completely unnecessary spat engineered recently by the British government over the details of post-Brexit, French access to the waters between 6 and 12 miles off the English coast. In both cases, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) speaks of “unfortunate misunderstandings” over the details of licencing arrangements for French fishing boats.

I would be happy to accept such assurances from Defra if it did not have such a long record of lying about fishing – especially under its present Secretary of State, George Eustice. 

Defra over-fished its “trust us” quota long ago.

On the other hand, the French are not entirely blameless. It was somewhat excessive of Annick Girardin, the minister for maritime affairs, to threaten to turn off Jersey’s lights while the dispute is still under discussion. Some of the nationalist rhetoric of fishermen’s leaders and local politicians in Normandy and especially Brittany has also gone off the deep end.

In essence, the dispute has nothing to do with Brexit and is everything to do with Brexit.

The complex pattern of fishing rights around and in between the Channel Islands has been a vexed question for centuries. Such rights were outside the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

In 2000, Britain and the Channel Islands government signed an agreement with France (The Treaty of the Bay of Granville) which established a pattern of rights for French boats up to 3 miles from the islands’ coasts. Last year, Britain and the islands said they were terminating the treaty as part of the “it’s all our fish now” policy as the end of Brexit transition approached. An interim deal was reached.

Despite anxious complaints by Norman and Breton fishermen and politicians, the question of the Îles Anglo-Normandes was not addressed in the final flurry of Brexit trade negotiations in December. Last month it seemed this had finally been settled.  French boats which had habitually fished in Channel Islands waters would automatically be licensed to continue doing so.

Over 250 Norman and Breton fishing boats rely on their catches around the islands – an industry which supports 900 families and 2,000 jobs on sea and land. At the same time, Channel Islands boats depend almost entirely on their rights to sell fish in Granville, Cherbourg and other French ports.

When they examined the licences issued by the Jersey government last Friday, however, French fishermen found they bore no relation to what had been promised. The licences varied, with no apparent logic, between the right to fish for 170 days a year and the right to fish for seven days.

Claude La Vaullée, a Norman skipper who has fished off Jersey for 40 years, found that his boat, Le Cach, had been given the right to fish for 11 hours a year. He told the regional newspaper Ouest France, that he and other skippers had now equipped their vessels to “re-stage the Battle of Trafalgar”.

Such restrictions were not mentioned in the negotiations and were not communicated to Paris or Brussels, French officials say. They were a unilateral decision by the Jersey government.

David Sellam, head of the joint Normany-Brittany sea authority, said : “We are confronted by people who are not trustworthy. Jersey has been taken over by an extremist fringe, who want to reduce French fishing access and profit from Brexit.

“We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary.”

Jersey politicians say it’s all a big misunderstanding (which suggests that they are preparing to climb down). The external Relations Minister Ian Gorst told the BBC yesterday that the licences issued last Friday were based on proof of past fishing activities. But there was no time limit, he said. The French fishing industry could provide more evidence if they needed extra, or more generous, licences.

Do the French fishermen have such evidence easily available? Some do and some perhaps don’t.

But all fishing activity is now so strictly regulated that it should not be difficult – if there is goodwill on all sides – for the French government to provide reasonable proof.

Is there goodwill on the Jersey and UK side? I expect that the threat of black-outs (however excessive the threat) will concentrate minds in Saint-Helier.

I suspect this dispute will not last long.

Member comments

  1. Jersey is not powerless in this dispute. The State-owned French electric company EDF has several million UK customers who could all choose to switch supplier if they felt so inclined. I don’t know why France has decided to go nuclear on this. The EU hasn’t. Perhaps they know that the French vessels can’t prove their fishing history through logged catches and the rest and consequently only intimidation will get them what they want. Not a pretty picture.

    1. If France were to turn off the electricity supply, I think Jersey would be completely justified in revoking all fishing permits for not only French but all EU vessels.

      1. And their catch would be sold where? I smell the hand of useless Eustace behind this. It is very much in the interest of Johnson et al to whip the gullible up into a frenzy of hate.

  2. Cast your mind back to the scallops dispute. The French fishing fleet, with their industrial scale boats threatening and in some cases ramming smaller boats. Their actions could have resulted in tragedy. French farmers burning sheep carcasses from the UK ring a bell?
    The various agricultural, fishing and farming groups have a long history of this kind of bullying behavior. The French fishing industry doesn’t give a stuff about sustainability either, it’s all about profit.

      1. I was hitherto unaware that culinary knowledge excused boorish, aggressive behaviour. I stand corrected.

  3. Who cares? If Jersey, Guernsey, Whatever have issue, produce your own electricity. It’s your sovereign right. Who needs the EU?

  4. Given the general dishonesty displayed by the UK government over the past two years, I know which side I support (even if their approach is also infantile at times).

  5. But they would have to do it by candlelight with a biro and wait for the next French boat to take their letters to the mainland.
    This absurd posturing by Jersey is Brexit writ large; a trivial island off the coast of Europe with ideas above its staion.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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