French fishermen on Friday began a day of action to disrupt cross-Channel traffic in protest at the post-Brexit fishing rights granted by Britain, blocking ferries seeking to access the northern port of Calais.
Half a dozen fishing boats blocked access to the port as part of a protest due to last one-and-a-half hours, an AFP correspondent said. On land, fishermen were also expected later to disrupt freight traffic seeking to enter the Channel Tunnel.
"We want our licences back," read an English-language banner brandished on one of the boats, the Marmouset II.
The regional chief of the CNPMEM fishing union, Olivier Lepretre, said the action was intended to "put pressure on the British government", and threatened other actions including on products imported from the UK.
A similar action also took place at the port of Saint-Malo to the west, although it did not affect ferries as that morning's traffic was cancelled due to bad weather.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he was "disappointed by threats of protest activity", adding that it was "a matter for the French to ensure that there are no illegal actions and that trade is not affected."
Britain has been struggling with major supply problems due to post-Brexit trade disruption and a lack of qualified truck drivers, resulting in fuel shortages and worries about Christmas.
The UK is highly dependent on French ports, particularly for fresh food imports, and any extended blockade would have the potential to cause significant costs.
- Stalemate -
The action by French fishermen comes with relations between the two neighbours at their lowest point in decades and days after a dinghy carrying migrants sank in the Channel, claiming 27 lives.
Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply UK waters if they apply for new licences and can prove they operated there in the past.
But Paris says dozens of French boats have had their applications to fish the UK's rich waters rejected, an assessment strongly contested by London.
France also accuses authorities on Jersey, a self-governing Channel island that depends on Britain for defence, of obstructing its fishermen.
The total volumes affected are tiny in terms of overall France-UK bilateral trade.
But the issue is politically sensitive and has contributed to growing post-Brexit tensions between Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose relationship was strained again by Wednesday's migrant disaster in the Channel.
In late October, France threatened to ban British fishing boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections.
Tensions even spiralled into a brief naval standoff in May, when dozens of French trawlers massed in front of Jersey's Saint Helier harbour.
Macron has said France would hold off imposing the measures to give dialogue a chance, but French officials have insisted that all options remain on the table.
Talks between France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune and Britain's Brexit minister David Frost have yet to yield a breakthrough.