France to charter two extra Channel rescue ships

France will charter two extra rescue ships as the number of migrants making the perilous sea crossing to the UK reaches a record high, French authorities said on Wednesday.

France to charter two extra Channel rescue ships
Migrants are rescued by crew members of the Abeille Languedoc ship, an ocean-going tug specialising in the rescue of ships in distress in May 2022 (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

More than 40,000 migrants have crossed the Channel to Britain so far this year, according to the UK government.

Earlier this month Britain and France signed a deal for UK authorities to increase what their French counterparts are paid to prevent the crossings, as strained relations improve under the UK’s new leader Rishi Sunak.

“Faced with the increase in the number of attempted crossings… despite the risks incurred on precarious boats, the prime minister has decided to strengthen the rescue system at sea in the coming weeks,” said the French Secretariat-General for the Sea, which comes under the authority of the French prime minister.

“Two additional vessels specifically dedicated to this mission” would be chartered as soon as possible to help save lives, it said.

It cited “the arrival of colder weather” and the growing risk of “serious accidents” for migrants “on the world’s busiest sea route”.

It also mentioned a second phase of the plan involving “aerial drones”.

These would “contribute to a better real-time understanding of the maritime situation, particularly when several boats attempt to cross simultaneously”, it said.

French emergency services rescued 240 migrants in small boats heading across the Channel to the southern coast of England between Monday and Tuesday this week, local authorities said.

UK police on Tuesday arrested a man suspected of playing a “key role” in the deaths of at least 27 people who drowned trying to cross in a dinghy last November in the deadliest such tragedy.

Among the 27 — aged seven to 47 — were 16 Iraqi Kurds, four Afghans, three Ethiopians, one Somali, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese migrant.

French and British coastguard services passed the buck as their dinghy sank, according to reports in mid-November.

Le Monde newspaper said the shipwrecked migrants had called French maritime authorities around fifteen times to ask for help — to no avail.

In one phone call AFP was informed about, a migrant asked for help, saying he was “in the water”.

The operator responded that she could not help him as he was in English waters.

He insisted that he was in French waters, urging her to send assistance. The conversation was then cut off.

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French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.