Macron’s fighting talk on fishing is buoyed by far-right election threats

Analysis: British government is not entirely innocent but Paris knows forceful rhetoric should only go so far

First published on Fri 29 Oct 2021 08.34 EDT

In January 2017, Emmanuel Macron, in third place in the race to be the next president of France and seen by some as an electoral bubble waiting to burst, staged a photo opportunity in the fish market of Le Guilvinec in Brittany. “Brexit will not go well because Brexit cannot go well,” Macron told fishers who had raised their concerns about the future. “But I’ll make [the fishing problem] a red line in our negotiations with the UK.”

Macron’s seizing of the Élysée Palace later that year was hugely buoyed up by the turnout in the coastal region. Close to a third of voters in Brittany gave him their vote in the crucial first round of the 2017 contest, a greater proportion than in any other region of France.

Macron stuck to his word on fishing during the Brexit negotiations. Despite Boris Johnson’s threat to walk away from the trade talks last year, he stayed tough on maintaining current access for French vessels to at least 2026 in the six- to 12-mile zone off the coast of the UK and the Channel Islands, including Jersey.

Next April, Macron will again face the voters. It is looking difficult. In June’s regional elections, Macron’s party, La République En Marche, was the big loser. The current election race is being dominated by threats from the right. The polls have Macron as a clear first-round frontrunner with 24% of the vote, but vying behind him are the far-right candidates Marine Le Pen (17%) and Éric Zemmour (16%), with Michel Barnier, who has also tacked to the right, possibly offering a challenge as the candidate for Les Républicains.

This may not be the right time to go soft on an issue as nationally symbolic as fishing. The UK has rejected 30 applications from small French boats seeking access to its coastal waters, while Jersey, most significantly, has rejected 55. Analysis of the list of rejected applicants suggests it is the Breton fishing communities, the very same group who sought reassurances from Macron in 2017, whose livelihoods are most at risk from those decisions.

There are few observers of French politics who would disagree with George Eustice, the UK’s environment secretary, when he suggested on Friday that the coming election may be a “factor” driving Paris’s confrontational approach.

Paris has said that unless French fishers receive more permits, retaliatory measures will be “gradually” imposed from Tuesday across six ports: Cherbourg, Granville, Barneville-Carteret, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Le Havre and Brest. These will start with heightened customs and health checks on goods, a potential ban on British boats landing fish at the ports, and then further scrutiny of UK vessels’ security, pollution and crew.

None of this is to say that the French do not have a case or that the British government is an entirely innocent party. Article 502 of the trade and cooperation agreement states that access should be granted “reflecting the actual extent and nature of fishing activity that it can be demonstrated was carried out during the period beginning on 1 February 2017 and ending on 31 January 2020 by qualifying vessels”.

The French claim the UK is being overly rigid in demands for evidence of such historic activity. It is difficult to believe that the Downing Street spokesperson who suggested France was acting in breach of both international law and the trade and cooperation agreement did so without a wry smile given the UK’s approach to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

But it is notable that the measures announced by Paris this week are unilateral. The European Commission has been in talks with the UK on its licensing but has not been involved in the French decision. “We have not been notified,” a commission spokesperson said. In public, few member states will criticise Paris despite the risk of tit-for-tat obstacles to trade being erected. But behind the scenes there will be words of caution. Every politician in Europe has a political constituency to sate but for all of the rhetoric from French ministers about “using the language of force”, there will be a recognition, most likely understood in Paris, that things should not be allowed to go too far. There are bigger economic fish to fry.

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