The flotilla arrived just as the sun rose across Saint Aubin’s bay. Around 70 fishing vessels, flying the French tricolour and the lions passant of Normandy, descended upon Jersey intent on blockading its port.
Locals described the sight as ‘like the arrival of the Spanish Armada’ as fishermen set off flares and displayed banners proclaiming ‘Jersey Government steals our historical wrights (sic)’.
They had travelled from the French ports of Granville, Carteret and St Malo to protest over French post-Brexit access to Jersey’s waters.
The demonstration was marred by ugly scenes when a 35ft French trawler rammed a British boat.
Jonathan Ruff said his boat was deliberately hit by the Lasgot after he sailed out to confront the French contingent.
Locals described the sight as ‘like the arrival of the Spanish Armada’ as fishermen set off flares and displayed banners proclaiming ‘Jersey Government steals our historical wrights (sic)’
Blockade: The little ships of France seal off St Helier harbour, delaying the British ferry
Tempers reached boiling point on the shore too when one local, a member of a Jersey militia reenactment group, brought his musket and fired a blank warning shot in the direction of the French.
The Gallic boats bore names such as Santa Clara and Hermes – ironically the Greek God of diplomacy – and initially sought to prevent British freight ferry the Commodore Goodwill from leaving port.
While the French managed to delay the ship for around four-and-a-half hours, they fled when the Royal Navy patrol vessels HMS Tamar and HMS Severn arrived ‘to monitor the situation’.
Amid heavy showers and grey skies, the hulking silhouettes of the Navy vessels dwarfed the trawlers.
Shove off! A french trawler gets pushy and rams into a British boat
An onlooker at the port in Jersey captured the moment a British vessel (right hand side of image) is forced to spin around to avoid a side-on collision with a French boat seen hurtling towards it. The brown French vessel does end up smacking into the side of the British boat without causing significant damage
Lasgot, a four tonne vessel from Cherbourg is believed to have rammed a pleasure craft belonging to a Briton in the harbour
To residents of Saint Helier, gathered along the Victoria and Albert Piers at either end of the harbour, the sight confirmed only that Britannia still rules the waves.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing said it had felt ‘like an invasion’ to see the French flotilla and welcomed the presence of the Royal Navy ships.
‘The French can be hostile. All of our livelihoods are in that harbour and if they wanted to they could cause damage,’ he said. ‘They can blockade their own harbours – they wouldn’t think twice about coming and doing it to us. There were a few hand-held flares going off and apparently a few bangers from the French. It was quite a sight.
‘I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea. It was like an invasion.’
Blast: A Jersey battle re-enactment enthusiast fires his musket out to sea
Under post-Brexit rules French boats are required to show they have a history of fishing in Jersey’s waters to qualify for a licence.
They are granted one based on how much fishing they have done between February 2017 and January 2020.
French authorities claim the rules are ‘new technical measures’ which had not been communicated and were therefore ‘null and void’.
Ministers had even raised the prospect of cutting off Jersey’s electricity – 95 per cent of it is supplied by underwater cables from France. Cyril Piraud, skipper of a Normandy-based boat called The Pearl, was among the fishermen protesting off St Helier.
Flares: French fishermen get fired up at the sight of one of the Royal Navy’s patrol boats on the horizon
‘We’re calling on Annick Girardin, the [French] minister of the sea, to put her threats [to cut electricity supplies to Jersey] into action,’ he said.
Laurent Blondel, captain of the Prequ’Ile, another French fishing boat, added: ‘We do not agree with the licences and restrictions that we were given.
‘Before, we were given licences to fish as we wanted, without restrictions, but this changed.’ Jersey’s fishing community condemned their French counterparts referring to the blockade as ‘pretty close to an act of war’.
Don Thompson, head of the Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said: ‘It was inevitable that the French would kick off.
Peace talks: Members of Jersey’s environment department listen to the Gallic grievances
French fishermen said they were ready to restage the Battle of Trafalgar as they descended on the harbour. But by 1.30pm navigation charts showed the armada had given in and was sailing back towards their home waters
‘But the reaction we’re seeing from France is almost like something you would see from Iran or Russia. It comes pretty close to an act of war, this.’
By midday a parley was in progress between representatives for the fishermen and Gregory Guida, Jersey’s assistant minister for the environment.
Following an hour-and-a-half of negotiations, the French fishermen agreed to return to port, ending their blockade at around 2pm. Mr Guida said: ‘When we talked we saw they had some genuine problems and we were quite happy to sort those.
‘I hope they do not come back – but there’s a basic problem that France is going through regional elections and there’s a lot of posturing that has nothing to do with fishing.
‘Jersey should be bracing itself for more trouble, we will do our best but I think it will get worse before it gets better.
‘This is a political issue and the elections in France finish on June 24, so I would be very surprised if something doesn’t happen before then. I think the talks went well, we did the best that we could, but are the French happy? Well, that depends on who you talk to.’
Why are Jersey and France warring over fishing rights?
What were the pre-Brexit arrangements for fishing waters?
Until January 1 this year, the UK was subject to the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). That meant that fleets from EU states had equal access to the the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other countries.
EEZ areas stretch 200 nautical miles from the coast of each state, or to a maritime halfway point between neighbouring countries. The British fishing industry had long complained that the arrangements meant EU fleets were plundering what should be their catch.
What has changed?
The post-Brexit trade deal sealed between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen before Christmas gave EU fleets transitional rights to UK fishing waters. The EU fishing quota for UK waters was reduced by 15 per cent this year, and will go down another 2.5 percentage points each year until 2026.
From that point the UK will in theory have the right to ban the bloc's fishing fleets altogether, although there will need to be annual negotiations. Crucially for the current situation, UK and EU vessels now require a licence to fish in each other's waters.
What are the French angry about?
A row has erupted over the specific regulations introduced by the Jersey government to implement the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. They require French boats to demonstrate they have a history of fishing in Jersey's waters in order to get licences, with Jersey adamant that is what the TCA sets out. However, the French authorities claim these 'new technical measures' for accessing waters off the Channel Islands have not been communicated to the EU.
As a result they have been dismissed as 'null and void'. There are also disputed allegations that Jersey has been dragging its heels in approving licences for boats that have applied.
So, what could happen now and would it ever REALLY end in war?
There is a huge amount of sabre-rattling going on, with the UK deploying the navy to counter an extraordinary blockage by French fishing vessels. French ministers have been backing their fishing fleet, threatening to cut power to the Channel Island in retaliation. When such confrontations develop there is always the risk of a miscalculation and real clashes.
Boris Johnson has urged the French to use the 'mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems' rather than resort to threats. There are rumours of a call between Mr Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, although No10 said there is nothing arranged yet.