Seizing of British officers by French fishing boat sends chill across channel

March 30, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Zut alors! Not another fishing war.

Diplomatic cables flashed across the channel yesterday. The French ambassador here was summoned to the Foreign Office and handed a stiff protest. The Royal Navy is considering issuing firearms.

The British are livid. On Sunday a French trawler abducted three Royal Navy officers who had boarded it off the island of Alderney, a British possession near the coast of Brittany.

The British fishing inspectors suspected that the trawler, Calypso, had been poaching in British waters. They ordered it to put into St. Peter Port, on the isle of Guernsey, famous for the cow of the same name.

Instead, Calypso --ed off toward France with the three British officers aboard. Their ship, HMS Brocklesby, gave chase all the way to the French port of Cherbourg. There it stood off until the three officers were returned three hours later by a French pilot boat.

Then things got worse.

Other French fishermen swarmed aboard HMS Blazer, a patrol boat moored in Cherbourg on a "good will visit." They chased the six-man crew and nine cadets below decks.

They even burned the ship's flag, known as the White Ensign.

And yesterday a dozen French trawlers were reportedly sailing in the direction of the British Channel Islands. Yet another provocation!

Back in London the spirit of old conflicts between Britain and France was beginning to stir. Fisheries Minister David Curry told the French to "knock it off, because it won't work. We are not going to be intimidated."

David Harris, a Conservative member of the House of Commons and chairman of its Fisheries Committee, said: "The Royal Navy has got to respond with a suitable show of strength to prevent any repetition of the disgraceful incidents by the French. If necessary they should send a frigate. They just cannot turn a blind eye to it."

Mr. Harris consulted with the Defense Ministry. There was talk of arming boarding parties from the British Fishery Protection Squadron.

French fishermen have been behaving more or less like this for a while now. Three weeks ago scores of them bused down from Brittany and stormed into the Paris fish market. They began breaking open boxes and dumping British and Russian fish all over the floor. And stepping on them.

They caused thousands of dollars in damage. Films of them vandalizing the market were all over British television. The level of England's affection for the French, never high, descended.

So what has inspired this Gallic ire?

Two things, apparently. One is an agreement between the British and French governments signed in September to restrict the French from fishing within 6 miles of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark.

These are traditional fishing grounds for Frenchmen and they don't like being cut out.

The other source of their discontent is the increasing competitiveness of British fish among French wholesalers, owing to the decline in the value of the pound sterling.

Both governments are taking this very seriously, especially the British. Being one of the great maritime nations they know how dangerous such matters can become. They have been in more than a few such disputes over whaling or fishing rights before. By one count they have had 10 such confrontations with Iceland alone.

Britain's last "fish war" was with Iceland over the cod. It lasted from 1973 to 1976. No lives were lost during the bitter conflict, nor were many shots fired. But there were rammings on the high seas. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 1976.

The French yesterday were responding to the British protests, and despite the fact the French government was in some turmoil owing to Sunday's election which effectively turned the Socialists out of office, they promised effective measures.

Ambassador Bernard Dorin, after his meeting at the Foreign Ministry, said, "The French government has condemned the fishermen's unacceptable behavior in this matter."

"As far what was done to the British ensign is concerned, whatever the circumstances and motives, we condemn such action," he said. "The French authorities will do everything necessary to ensure that such incidents are not repeated."

To back up that promise, the French patrol boat, Coriander, was to be sent to Cherbourg yesterday. And, for the moment, growling, the British lion returned to its slumbers.

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