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POLITICS

France rejects having UK police and soldiers patrol its beaches

French Prime Minister Jean Castex told his British counterpart Boris Johnson that the UK held "a large part of the solution" to the Channel migrant crisis and rejected the idea of joint border patrols, according to letter seen by AFP on Thursday.

French police patrol the beaches near Calais
French police patrol the beaches near Calais. Photo: François Lo Presti/AFP

Castex wrote to Johnson on Wednesday setting out France’s suggestions to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats following a tragedy last week in which at least 27 people drowned.

He formally rejected an idea proposed by Johnson of British security forces patrolling on the French coast to prevent dinghies taking to the water.

“We cannot accept… that British police or soldiers patrol on our coasts.

“It’s a question of sovereignty and I know your government’s sensitivity towards respecting the sovereignty of others,” Castex wrote.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet treaty and why do French politicians want to scrap it?

The letter did not directly address another controversial idea of Johnson’s of returning all migrants to France that cross the Channel by sea, which the British prime minister believes “would significantly reduce – if not stop – the crossings.”

It said France would work towards a migration agreement between Britain and the European Union “which could include a virtuous transfer mechanism.”

“Sending migrants back to us is not an option and is not a serious or responsible way of tackling the issue,” one of Castex’s aides said on Thursday, asking not to be named.

Franco-British relations, already seen as at their lowest in decades, dived again after the mass drownings on November 24th.

Johnson made proposals in a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron last week that were seen in Paris as an attempt to deflect blame onto France.

OPINION: France protests the UK from the migrant crisis, a fact Britain will never accept

His decision to make the letter public before Macron had read it was seen as a breach of diplomatic protocol, with the French president later condemning his approach as “not serious.”

In retaliation, an invitation to British Home Secretary Priti Patel to take part in a meeting of European ministers in France at the weekend to discuss migration was withdrawn.

According to the Canard Enchaine newspaper on Wednesday, Macron called Johnson a “clown” as well as a gougnafier (knucklehead) in private conversations with aides last week.

“It is a pretty unhelpful word,” UK Business Minister George Freeman told Sky News on Thursday.

“Of course, the Prime Minister isn’t a clown, he is the elected prime minister of this country with a very big mandate, leading this country through the pandemic.”

Castex’s letter to Johnson, shared with journalists a day after being sent, was strongly worded, but began by saying that “every country must face up to its responsibilities” in tackling the Channel crossings.

It said that France was deploying 700 police officers to patrol its northern coast, while 41 people-smuggling rings had been broken up since the start of the year and 1,552 suspected smugglers had been arrested.

READ ALSO What is France doing to stop illegal Channel crossings?

It added, however, that “managing the reception of migrants that want to go to your country falls firstly on France, which is not normal.”

It also acknowledged that fellow European Union members such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany needed to do more to tackle people-smuggling and illegal migration.

But it stated that “a large part of the solution is not to be found in France, but in the United Kingdom.”   

Castex urged Britain to adopt “a more efficient returns policy” to deport failed asylum seekers, as well as opening up legal migration routes for “those who have legitimate reasons to want to come to your country.”

“Only you can ensure that your labour market is sufficiently controlled to discourage people wanting to work illegally,” he wrote.

It also warned Britain against pushing back migrant boats, an option that has been under discussion by the government in London, saying this would “endanger the lives of migrants and would break maritime law.”

In addition, France wanted improved intelligence-sharing from the UK, particularly to bolster a shared intelligence centre in northern France.

“We have noticed that Britain supplies it with little,” the prime minister’s aide said.

A second aide denied that France was seeking to shift responsibility for the crossings on to London.

“We are not approaching this as a blame-game. We’re approaching it as a shared responsibility,” the aide said.

France is regularly criticised by rights groups for denying entry to asylum seekers on its southern border with Italy.

Member comments

  1. Britain had the same problem with Chinese coming over the border into Hong Kong in the 70s. It only stopped when China accepted their return. No migrant is looking for a round trip.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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