Angry French Fishermen Trash Supermarket Fish

WHEN French fishermen left their boats and villages last week to vent their fury at collapsing fish prices, one of their prime targets was the giant supermarkets increasingly favored by French consumers.

Across Brittany and on into Normandy in northern France, commandos of bat- and bar-wielding fishermen invaded the huge stores and headed for the frozen-food section - where they trashed any fish product in sight. In the fishermen's eyes, the supermarkets are guilty of breaking the local fishing industry's back by offering cheap frozen imports. But supermarket officials lay the blame more at changing consumer tastes and the French fishing industry's failure to keep up with the times.

Since 1980, fish consumption in France has almost doubled - a change that should have the country's roughly 15,000 fishermen smiling. But virtually all of the increase has been in sales of frozen fish, much of which is caught and processed abroad.

Over the last 20 years, out of total fish sales, the share of fish sold in shops and street markets - generally supplied by national fishermen - has tumbled from almost three-quarters to about one-half. The big supermarkets' share of sales has gone from about 13 percent to 42 percent.

Supermarket officials blame France's many-tiered marketing process, which results in a more expensive product for them even when prices for local fishermen drop. They also blame the broader food processing industry, which has failed to keep up with such European competitors as the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark.

The French government plans to work with fishermen on ways to get their product to market at a better price. And several large supermarket chains are helping French fishing ports understand their needs so the markets can increase their local purchases.

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