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Fishermen start lifting French harbour blockades

Latest update : 2008-05-24

The fishermen who ignited the protests over rising fuel costs in Les-Sables-d'Olonne two weeks ago suspended their strike Saturday morning, but their colleagues in other harbours decided to maintain their blockades.

The fishermen of Les-Sables-d'Olonne voted Saturday to suspend a strike after the government in Paris agreed to compensate loss of income due to fuel price rises.

The vote indicated an easing of tensions after angry fishermen took action this month, blocking ports including a major refinery operated by the French oil company Total in the Channel port of Dunkirk.

The vote was the first true sign of detente in the dispute. This town was where the industrial action started on May 10, spreading quickly to northern France and the Mediterranean.

Fishermen here called off their blockade of the commercial, fishing and yachting harbours.

But a fisheries spokesman warned: "We're not ending the strike, we're only suspending it."

"If nothing concrete has happened in a month from now, we resume striking," said local fisheries committee chairman Jose Jouneau.

Protests escalated during the last week, disrupting cross-Channel traffic, while fishermen clashed with police outside a government building in Paris where negotiations were being held.

About 40 trawlers formed a queue near the Boulogne-sur-mer port to slow down traffic through the 21 miles (34 kilometres) wide straits between France and the English coast, one of the busiest seaways, used by some 600 vessels a day.

French Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Michel Barnier met spokesmen of the fishermen in Rennes late Friday and gave them a written commitment of emergency aid to help cushion soaring fuel costs.

Fishermen stopped blocking the Channel port of Dieppe late Friday following an agreement with the port operator who had threatened court action.

But on Saturday some fishing communities were still holding out, including Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc and La Rochelle, all ports paralysed by  blockades pending fishermens union meetings in the next few days.

More than 100 fishermen in the Finistere region carried out their own checks on a highway with roadblocks, stopping and searching refrigerated trucks to find out if fish were being imported.

In Dunkirk Friday, fishermen set fire to crates and set up roadblocks to prevent trucks from entering the Total oil refinery where riot police were deployed to secure the entrances, said an AFP correspondent.

Fishermen ransacked fish stands at two wholesalers in Normandy while police dismantled roadblocks set up to cut off access to the BP Mobil depot at Frontignan in the south, police said.

In Caen, about 100 fishermen ransacked the fish stands of two wholesalers Friday and staged a protest that disrupted traffic along a motorway in Normandy.

Three supermarkets were raided in the southern Bordeaux region late Thursday and fishermen clashed with truckers loading fish at the Arcachon port, local officials said.

No repetition of these incidents was reported Saturday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was also facing questions from the European Union, which expressed concern that the aid package to the fishermen may contain a disguised subsidy.

But Barnier said in a television interview: "This measure is a social measure. It is not assistance to businesses."

Date created : 2008-05-24