“Cods Of War” – French Fishermen And No-Deal Brexit


For those of you who have been to France just for your holidays, the chances are that you really do not know what the French are like. You have probably not tasted what it is like to be caught, day after day, in the middle of a chaotic and sometimes violent mentality that is so typically French.

I’m referring to the habit that the French have to break shop windows, set up blockades on major roads, and generally cause havoc before finally sending union representatives to the negotiating table.

The whole world witnessed what the French are capable of during the Yellow Vests demonstrations that were marred by violence.

Are we going to witness a Yellow Life Jackets or Fishermen’s Vests movement of discontent? I’m referring to a head-on confrontation between French fishermen and their English counterparts. The conflict may not necessarily take place at sea, but might limit itself to the relative comfort of French fishing ports where the French fishermen may find it necessary to perform more daring acts of defiance, acts that would affect a greater number of people and carry with it much more economic clout. I’m referring to the blockade of French ferry ports – Calais, in particular.

The stakes are high because French fishermen (the same applies to the Belgians and Dutch) depend upon the right to fish in British territorial waters. But British fishermen also have a lot to lose, since it is estimated that 70% of their catch is exported to the EU for processing and distribution.

In 2012, dozens of fishing trawlers blocked several French ports, including Boulogne and Calais, in protest against reduced fish quotas imposed by Brussels. Ironically, the minister of agriculture at the time was none other than Michel Barnier. After having to plead to the EU, Barnier did manage to get sole quotas increased by some sort of dealings with other Member-States.

In 2018, another blockade took place in the northern ports, limiting cross-channel ferries to one every hour, severely disrupting traffic. The dispute centered on the use of electric fishing nets by Dutch fishing trawlers – a technique considered to be detrimental to the environment and threatening to French fishermen’s wallets.

The right to strike and demonstrate is almost as cherished as the right to go to your local baker for your morning croissant. It is just as untouchable as the Journal de 20 Heures (8 o’clock news) – le 20 heures, as it is affectionately called – on French television. Some things in life, particularly French life, just do not get questioned, yet alone curtailed. It is common knowledge that in French industrial disputes, “on casse puis on discute,” (“we break, and then we talk”). The secret is to start by causing as much damage as you can, before quietly taking your seat at the negotiating table. French president, Emmanuel Macron, might end up by changing a lot of things in France, but this is one piece of French culture that is more than likely to stay put, and survive his assaults on the French way of life.

For French historian Stéphane Sirot, “It’s part of the character of France to have these big social movements at a national level, that can last a long time.” French workers won the right to strike in 1864, 20 years before they were allowed to unionize, which may explain why, paradoxically, union membership is quite low, compared to the number of different unions on offer. The fact that street demonstrations regularly take place is also typical of France. It stems from the thoughts of the Enlightenment and Rousseau – the elected government may be legal, but not necessarily legitimate. True legitimacy belongs to the people, and not those who are elected by the people.

But for the French fishermen, and arguably Belgian and Dutch fishermen too, the prospect of not being able to enter British territorial waters casts a dark cloud over many small fishing businesses that are extremely sensitive to quotas.

We have already had a foretaste of what might happen when, in 2018, French and British trawlers clashed in the English Channel over unregulated British fishery rules that allow British trawlers to catch scallops the whole year round.

Come the end of the summer and the war of nerves will have begun. The EU’s stance of, “Keep calm and don’t negotiate,” may just test the patience and goodwill of French fishermen who have caused chaos before and are probably ready to do so again. Yellow vests may be quickly replaced by fisherman’s suits.