French fishermen catching more tourists than fish

Tempers flared as thousands of increasingly frustrated British and Irish tourists sought alternative routes home as striking French fishermen expanded their blockade of English Channel ports to other parts of the country.

By the beginning of the week, the strike had spread to most commercial ports along the Channel and Corsica. A few French Mediterranean ports have also been affected. With the French fishing industry suffering from an appalling deficit, both independent and salaried fishermen are protesting against high fuel costs and falling fish prices. And they are angered by plans of shipowners to reduce crews and salaries in an effort to cut expenditure.

At the height of the summer holiday season, and estimated 15,000 vacationers are reportedly trapped in France by the dispute. Police and travel agents are advising returning tourists to make their way to Belgium, where car ferries are unaffected by the fishermen's blockade. The three main operators of cross-channel ferry services have redirected most of their ships to the Belgian ports of Ostende and Zeebrugge. Twice the normal number of ships are now plying the routes between Belgium and Britain. French radio is broadcasting bulletins on the latest strike developments and the best ways to leave the country.

The blockade, however, has not prevented some ships from trying to break past the fishermen anchored at the harbor entrances. At Cherbourg in normandy and St. Malo in Brittany, four british ferries with stranded passengers made determined attempts to squeeze past the striking trawlers.

Two of them succeeded. The remaining two were forced to turn back.

On Sunday evening, another British ferry, the Free Enterprise II, forced its way through the blockade with "Land of Hope and Glory" blaring from its loudspeakers as passengers threw objects and shouted at the fishermen to help clear the way.

As a result of these actions, the fishermen strengthened their defenses. At Le Havre in Normandy, they constructed a pontoon linked by cables and chains to obstruct the harbor and prevent ships from docking. The strikers have also blockaded a number of marinas along the coast. When one English yacht tried to escape, it was forced back with fire hoses. In other ports trawlers hunted fleeing yachts and forced them back in.

With police reporting traffic jams of up to 25 miles along the coastal road in Normandy leading to the Belgian border, some tourists have set up camp along the wharfs of French ports.

Many sleep out in the open or in car seats. In some towns, the French Army set up mobile canteens with free food, while in Dieppe, for example, the town council persuaded a local supermarket to open up its staff cafeteria to all stranded holidaymakers. A number of British, who are at the end of their vacations, are broke.

The fishermen are scheduled to meet with government representatives Aug. 19. They are determined to continue with their protest until a satisfactory solution has been found, but both sides are refusing any compromise. "We don't want to cause any unnecessary provocation," explained one spokesman. "But farmers demonstrate by blocking the roads and the EDF [Electricite de France] cuts off the current, so why shouldn't we have the right to defend our profession?"

Although there is considerable symphaty for the fishermen's plight, patience is wearing thin among locals. "They are destroying Boulogne," remonstrated marcel Baey, president of the port's Fishmongers' Association. "The conflict concerns 800 fishermen. But it also prevents 7,000-8,000 people from working. This is intolerable." Less than two-thirds of Boulogne's fish industry is supplied by French fisherman.

Mr. Francois le Chevalier, chairman of the Le Havre Port Authority, angrily complained that some 40,000 workers living off harbor activities are now out of work. "The strike could cause irreparable damage," he said. Le Havre is already losing 5 million francs ($1.25 million) a day in revenue and the authorities fear business could be picked up as a result by rival ports, particularly in Belgium and the netherlands.

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