Husband and wife interrupt day trip to reconquer Channel isle for Britain

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The Independent Online
THE QUEEN can sleep easy, knowing her realm is intact once more. Last Sunday a seven-man invasion posse planted a flag of the "Kingdom of Patagonia" on Les Minquiers islands, south of Jersey.

Yesterday however, a British yachtsman took it off on his way to lunch. Peter Mourant, a Jerseyman, and his wife Anne, arrived on the uninhabited pile of rocks for a picnic.

Unimpressed by the continuing presence of the invasion force, Mr Mourant removed the offending blue, white and green flag; restored the Union flag; cleared away some pro-Patagonian leaflets lying on the rocks, and left.

Later a Jersey policeman, PC Graeme Fitchett, arrived to take photographs and formalise the British re-possession of what is the southern-most tip of the United Kingdom.

But why leave the job of defending the fringes of the realm to a passing sailor? "We could have gone in with a gunboat and demanded a surrender, but we would have looked pretty silly," a spokesman for the Jersey government was quoted as saying, defensively. "I don't think anyone took it too seriously."

But that was clearly not the view of the French novelist, Jean Raspail, who led the invasion. Raspail claimed the territory, a barren Crown dependency which contains a just a few buildings - one thought to be a lavatory - in a complicated act of retaliation for Britain's possession of the Falk- lands, which lie off Patagonia.

The Kingdom of Patagonia, in turn, was claimed briefly in 1861 by a French adventurer related to Raspail. He lasted 12 months in power before being ejected by the Chilean army. The region is now split between Chile and Argentina.

The British Embassy in Paris confirmed that the Union flag was again fluttering in the Channel. "We are very pleased to hear that a British yachtsman had duly lowered the flag, and raised in its place the rightful Union flag," an embassy spokesman, Tim Livesey, said:

Mr Raspail, 73 and self-proclaimed consul of the Kingdom of Patagonia, told Reuters news agency yesterday that he would return the flag he removed from Les Minquiers to the British embassy tomorrow.

The writer, whose novel about his ancestor's adventures, I, Antoine de Tounens, King of Patagonia, won a prize from the Academie Francaise in 1981, originally insisted on meeting embassy officials on neutral terrain. A hotel bar on the Place de la Concorde, would do, he said, where he would "honourably return" the Union flag "to her British Majesty's embassy". Another suggested venue was the Hotel Bristol.

Raspail appeared sanguine about the fact that a Briton had hoisted the Union flag once more on Les Minquiers and was said to be embarrassed by the publicity his venture generated. He was also unrepentant.

Speaking from his home outside Paris, he said his actions had been triggered by "Britain's unacceptable and prolonged occupation of the Malvinas (Argentina's name for the Falklands)", adding somewhat confusingly that "the rocks in the Channel are very similar to the landscape of Patagonia."

Back at the British embassy, Mr Livesey said he was most interested to recover the Union flag, in spite of reports that it had been severely frayed. "I think this is one of those human interest stories that keeps British and French relations from being too stodgy," he said, comfortingly. Not many echoes of Elizabeth I there.

And the French were dispassionate about the affair, too. Paris once laid claim to Les Minquiers, only to be rebuffed by the International Court in The Hague in a ruling in 1953.

But these days the French care less about the Channel Islands, even though they were once part of the Duchy of Normandy. "We do not recognise the Kingdom of Patagonia," was the downbeat comment of a French foreign ministry spokeswoman. "This is a domestic matter for Britain."