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Page last updated at 19:58 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 20:58 UK

France offers fishermen aid deal

Police guard France's agricultural ministry against protesting fishermen 21/05/08

The French government has offered the fishing industry 110m euros (£88m) after days of protests by fishermen over rising fuel costs.

The president of the national fishing committee has called on crews to return to work.

This follows a day of talks during which protesters clashed with police outside the agriculture ministry.

Ferry traffic with the UK has also ground to a halt, with fishing fleets blockading several French ports.

Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said after talks with industry representatives that a three-year plan which had already been announced would now be accelerated.

"Our choice... is to respond to the anxieties that are being expressed by extending, intensifying and accelerating the implementation of the plan," Mr Barnier said.

In January the government approved an aid package for fishermen worth 310m euros (£248m) over three years. Mr Barnier said he now plans to implement this over two years but this is still subject to approval from the EU commission.

Pierre-Georges Dachicourt, president of the national fishing committee called on "all fishing crews to return to the sea".

It remains unclear whether fishermen will end their stoppage.

"We are not very satisfied with the announcement," Frederic Mateo, a union representative from Marseille, said. He described the government promise as "vague".

Meanwhile France is bracing itself for a major strike over pension reforms.

Workers are due to walk out for 36 hours, starting on Wednesday evening, to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to make people work for 41 years, rather then the current 40, before being able to draw a full pension.

Price cap

The fishermen's blockade began more than a week ago, and was originally confined to a few ports like La Rochelle on the west coast.

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Angry fishermen fire flares at police

But it spread until, on Wednesday, Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk on the north coast, all serving cross-Channel ferry services to Britain, were isolated by a ring of fishing boats.

The stoppage forced UK authorities to shut the port of Dover, causing such a long build-up of lorry traffic that the M20 motorway had to be closed.

The fishermen say rapidly rising prices for diesel threaten them with bankruptcy. They are demanding a greater subsidy from the French government, in effect putting a cap on prices. But fishermen say that agreement is redundant, since fuel has become 30% more expensive since the start of the year.

French teachers protest against proposed cuts in Paris
French teachers say cuts in numbers affect quality

As Mr Barnier met union representatives in Paris on Wednesday, as many as 200 fishermen gathered outside.

Dozens of flares were thrown, injuring up to four policemen, according to reports.

Riot police surrounded the building and responded with tear gas.

The fishermen's protest came as the government is facing industrial action from various sectors.

Port workers plan a strike for Thursday against privatisation - which is likely to exacerbate the problems caused by the fishing blockade.

Thursday will also see major action by rail, postal, utility and other public sector workers across France.

They are protesting against plans to extend the retirement age.

It follows a teachers' strike against job cuts last week.

Unions are hoping that a head of steam is building up against Mr Sarkozy's economic reform plans, says BBC correspondent Hugh Schofield in Paris.

But the president has so far made the calculation that most people accept the changes that he has promised, and there is no sign of him backing down, says our correspondent.



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