French launch a floating barrier to keep oil spill away from Biscay coast

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FEARS ARE growing of a "black Christmas" on the west coast of France.

The French government deployed a floating barrier of ships and booms along the Biscay coast yesterday to try to hold back a slick of heating oil, spilt when a tanker sank off Brittany 10 days ago.

With high onshore winds forecast for the next two or three days, officials admit that there is little chance of stopping the oil reaching the Ile d'Yeu and the sandy coastline to the north of La Rochelle. The oil is expected to come ashore on Christmas Day afternoon.

A line of naval vessels, trawlers and specialist ships armed with 120 miles of floating barriers took up position along the threatened coast yesterday. The blockade, manned by 2,000 people, aims to soak up the two main oil slicks or, at least, divert the pollution on to sandy beaches where it will do the least damage. Officials admitted, however, that the booms and barriers might have little effect in heavy seas. Winds of up to 50mph are forecast for the next three days.

Ten thousand tons of heavy heating oil, spilt when the Maltese-registered tanker Erika sank on 12 December and France is bracing itself for an ecological disaster if the spill reaches the rocky shores of the Ile d'Yeu, or the Vende coast. Many thousands of seabirds winter on this part of the Atlantic coast and enormous damage could also be caused to shellfish farms and inshore fishing.

A large fleet of anti-pollution vessels - drawn from Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as France - has been fighting the slick ever since the Erika broke in half. Continuing bad weather, and the thickness of the oil, has hampered pumping operations but at least 1,000 tons has been recovered. The remainder, divided into two large slicks and dozens of smaller ones, seemed to be drifting harmlessly until a change in the weather four days ago blew the oil due east, towards the Ile d'Yeu.

The Erika, was carrying oil for the French company Total-Fina, and its wreck has provoked a political controversy in France. The ship's captain has been jailed and placed under formal investigation and Socialist and Green MPs have called for the prosecution of Total-Fina and tighter controls on flag of convenience vessels using French ports.

t The first general strike at Disneyland, Paris, is being held today to push for an annual pay-rise and a pounds 200 "millennium" bonus for those working on 31 December. The strike is expected to affect hotels but many costumed performers are also threatening to stop work.