London — They sat on blankets in the middle of the usually busy highways; men, women, and children eating sandwiches from hampers and drinking tea from makeshift canteens or free milk from the French authorities.
At night, they slept in their cars or in schools and civic buildings hastily outfitted with Army-issue camp beds.
Behind them, three days worth of traffic knotted into 25-mile standstill queues along the French coast.
Nuclear protestors? Refugees from a hurricane?
No: Simply 15,000 British ferry passengers waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk, Boulogne, Cherbourg, and other channel ports over the weekend of Aug. 17. They were the unwitting victims of a port blockade by angry French fishermen seeking greater government assistance.
The trawlermen, stringing cables between their boats across all the major French channel ports, pelted would-be blockade-runners with bolts, ball bearings , axes, flares, and moldy potatoes as French naval patrols stood anxiously aside.
They had chosen their time well. Like the European air traffic controllers, whose strike last summer stranded thousands of peak-season passengers, the fisherman captured mighty headlines in an otherwise slack news period.
By Aug. 19, however, they had called a 24-hour truce to allow ferries to sweep up most of the frustrated travelers. Before that, there were some heated encounters between the fishermen and the tourists.
As soon as the 24-hour truce had expired Aug. 20, the blockade spread to southern Brittany, along the Atlantic coast, and into the Mediterranean. The French government, notorious for fleeing Paris en masse for August holidays, left behind hardly anyone able to negotiate with the fishermen.
Their immediate demands are twofold: continuation of present crew levels aboard the boats (which boatowners, facing financial difficulties, want to cut), and an increase in government subsidies to offset rising fuel costs.
Submerged beneath that, however, is the pervasive and intractable problem of a fisheries policy for the European Community.
"The EEC as a whole has been in chaos over fisheries -- that's all part of the problem," a spokesman for the British Fishing Federation told the Monitor. "There are far too many trawlers chasing far too few fish in the North Sea," he added.
The Community "pond" embraces North Sea, English Channel, and Atlantic waters. Roughly two-thirds of the available fish, however, are in British territorial waters.
But Britain, with only 25 percent of the Community fleet (France, with 38 percent, has the lion's share), wants a quota that reflects the size of its waters rather than the size of its fleet.
Community ministers will meet this autumn to devise a fisheries policy as well as to untangle several other issues: * Access. Since the icelandic cod wars of 1975, when Iceland extended its territorial waters to 200 miles, British fishermen have been scrambling to find fish.
* Enforcement. The British complain that the French are ignoring the three-year- old ban on herring fishing, which British boats observe.
* Prices. British fishermen are upset about cheap imports of frozen fillets gluting the home markets.