Striking fishermen lift protest blockade

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Striking French fishermen lifted blockades at several Breton and Norman ports last night after the government promised emergency help to ease the effects of rocketing fuel prices.

The protests began on Friday in the first overt sign of the political fallout across Europe over the continuing surge in world oil prices. Entrances to three depots and a refinery were blockaded and boxes of Scandinavian fish were set on fire.

The fishermen, who are damnding government assistance, say rising fuel costs for their vessels have swallowed up most of the profit from catches and they earn only £70 each for a 15-day voyage.

The President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was booed and insulted by trawlermen in Brittany yesterday as he attempted to resolve the row before leaving for a two-day trip to Washington. He tried to placate them, saying he was suspending all social contributions by fishermen and fishing-boat owners for six months. He has also asked the fisheries minister, Michel Barnier, to find a mechanism by which the market price for fish could be made to reflect the price of fuel.

Fishermen's leaders said the President had a testy reception from 300 fishermen at Guilvinec, near Brest, some shouting that he should go back to Paris. Using the familiar tu, rather than vous, M. Sarkozy shouted back: "If you've got anything to say to me, come here. If I come, you complain. If I don't come, you also complain. I decided to come."

The unions have refused to call off the protests until details of the agreement to suspend social security charges are hammered out.