Channel chaos as French step up blockade

Thousands of Britons are left stranded by fishermen laying siege to ports in protest over high fuel prices
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The Independent Online

Tens of thousands of Britons were stranded on the Continent last night by protesting fishermen who blocked the main French ports.

Tens of thousands of Britons were stranded on the Continent last night by protesting fishermen who blocked the main French ports.

Legal action was under way against the demonstrators amid fears the blockade could last another five days, causing massive delays for British holidaymakers returning after the school break.

The French fishermen's protest against increases in fuel prices, which started on Monday at Mediterranean ports and Cherbourg, could disrupt plans by English football fans to travel to Paris for the international with France on Saturday.

Most cross-Channel ferry services from Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk and St Malo were halted and many passengers were advised to switch to increasingly congested ports in Belgium. Sailings from Dover, Folkestone, Portsmouth and Plymouth were hit by the action, with some ships cancelled, others diverted and a few turned back having sailed to within sight of French ports.

The journeys of British holidaymakers heading for the Continent were disrupted even before they got to ferry terminals. At one stage yesterday police in Kent closed the M20 between junctions 11 and 12, allowing trucks to use the coast-bound carriageway as a huge temporary lorry park.

The disruption may well worsen today. Two separate demonstrations - by fishermen and taxi-drivers - are threatened on the main roads into Paris. French farmers and lorry drivers are threatening to block the French end of the Channel Tunnel in further demonstrations.

The sea blockade, also affecting ports along the Mediterranean, may continue despite signs that Paris is planning to reduce taxes or increase subsidies on marine fuel and diesel for road hauliers.

Yesterday afternoon the P&O Stena Line, whose Dover-Calais operations were severely hit, went to court in Boulogne in an attempt to win an injunction against the fishermen. Managers at P&O said their legal representatives in France were seeking "personal fines" against the fishermen rather than a general legal order. "They tend to respond when their own pockets are involved," the spokesman said. A court hearing is expected today but any injunction is unlikely to be served until tomorrow.

Sarah Cotton, 65, from Abergavenny, South Wales, was on a Brittany Ferries crossing to St Malo when it was turned back after leaving Portsmouth at 8.30pm on Tuesday. Mrs Cotton said: "We got halfway across and the boat was turned back. We were told on Tuesday night that we would beat the blockade because it wasn't starting until 7am but they wouldn't let us through."

David Langford, 28, from King's Lynn, Norfolk, arrived at Calais at 7pm on Tuesday. He said: "I've just travelled from Thailand and I have come through 11 countries and it is always France that causes the trouble. It is typical that it all messes up when I am 23 miles from England."

As word of the disruption reached travellers, many switched to Channel Tunnel Eurotunnel services, which were unaffected.

French newspapers have reported plans by the French government to compensate road users and fishermen for the increases in fuel prices in the past year (a 50 per cent increase for diesel, 30 per cent for petrol and a near-doubling for untaxed marine fuel). Whatever method is chosen - temporary subsidies or reduced fuel taxes - might be clawed back from oil companies by a windfall tax on profits.

The fishermen say, however, that they will continue their action until they receive a clear promise of government action. Fuel for fishing boats is already untaxed in France. Because of the worldwide surge in oil prices, it is now selling at two francs (20p) a litre, compared with Fr1.30 a year ago.

The fishermen are demanding new subsidies to compensate for the high oil prices. Claude Tessie said his trawlerused to cost £37,000 to fuel for its eight-month season. At present prices, it would cost £62,000.

Fishermen's leaders complain that, at these prices, and despite other, regional subsidies, it is no longer profitable for them to put to sea.

The French government is expected to announce tax-cutting measures - some oil related, some not - tonight.