The fishermen - some witnesses said there were as many as 1,000 - arrived from western France in a fleet of coaches for the protest, which seemed to take police by surprise. It was the climax to a week of often violent demonstrations against falling prices and 'unfair' imports.
The fishermen's action, which forced a French ferry carrying fish-trucks to divert from a Breton port to Cherbourg on Monday, came on the eve of a European Community meeting in Brussels to discuss price support. The protesters invaded the Halle de la Maree, the fish market in the huge complex at Rungis, near Orly airport, known as the 'belly of Paris', shortly after midnight.
They then set about overturning marble counters, smashing computers and trampling seafood into the ground. In some places, lobsters, still alive, twitched among the debris.
Charles Josselin, the Maritime Affairs Minister, said shortly after the incident that the EC would decide to fix a minimum price for 'the more threatened species'. But he warned against further violence, saying that such outbreaks could endanger EC consensus on protecting the fishing industry.
The Rungis wholesale food market, where Paris shops and restaurants stock up with fresh food daily, starts its working day before dawn as food trucks arrive from the provinces.
Officials estimated the damage and losses at 20m francs ( pounds 2.5m). When riot police and gendarmes arrived, they were pelted with frozen fish. It was nearly four hours before police restored order.
Some fish wholesalers, apparently tipped off about the protest, had not stocked their counters, so there was less than the usual daily display of 700 to 800 tons. The fracas deprived fishmongers in the Paris area of produce at the beginning of their Tuesday-to-Sunday week.
Police detained five of the rioters, prompting about 500 of their colleagues to return later in the day to Rungis, where they demonstrated outside the main police station to demand their release.
As the fishermen demonstrated, however, the farmers announced that they were suspending protests against EC Common Agricultural Policy reform and the Gatt compromise on agriculture in view of the French government's statement on Monday that it was prepared to use its veto to stop the EC passing the Gatt agreement on oilseeds.
The militant Rural Co-ordination group had started the week by blocking railway tracks all over the country, causing numerous delays and cancellations. At Westminster, John Major told MPs that he expected the French to safeguard free trade and to bring protesters to justice.
'We will continue to leave the French government in no doubt that we will expect them to act where necessary to safeguard free trade, to pay compensation when losses have occurred and to bring the perpetrators to book,' the Prime Minister said.
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