French authorities crack down on magnet fishing over fears of World War II bombs

Equipped with powerful magnets, history enthusiasts and environmentalists scour France's rivers, pulling out bits of scrap metal, bikes, scooters and the odd kitchen appliance.

French authorities crack down on magnet fishing over fears of World War II bombs
All photos: AFP

But French authorities have clamped down on the popular pastime over fears that historical battle sites could still harbour active weapons.

As in other countries, participants in France tie a super magnet to a rope and drop it into waterways, partly for treasure hunting, partly for environmental reasons.

On the banks of the Oise river, in a town about 75km north of Paris, Owen Gressier, 20, and his three fellow magnet fishermen cast their neodymium magnets.

After several attempts at their spot near a bridge in La Croix-Saint-Ouen, they latch onto something. 

It takes a few minutes to haul out the item with the help of a grappling hook. 

A rusty, cast-iron pipe emerges: “Nice catch,” they say. It's the best find that afternoon.

“We've been fishing here for a number of years, the bottom (of the river) is pretty clean,” Gressier, a forklift truck operator, says. 

Driven by what he calls his passion for World War II and a quest to find medals, military gear and other historical objects, Gressier says that he also “quickly realised that it was possible to clean up the waterways”. 

'It's crazy what you can find' 

In 2017, he set up a Facebook page, which now has more than 500 subscribers, where members share photos, advice and organise outings. 

“It's crazy everything you can find in the water,” Gressier says, listing anything from electric scooters to traffic signs and microwaves. 

“With a dozen people, you can sometimes pull out 50kg of scrap metal in a few hours,” he adds.

In the neighbouring Somme department, site of one of the largest battles of World War I, Christophe Devarenne started magnet fishing three months ago. 

He says the thrill comes from “not knowing what will be at the end of the magnet”. 

But the 52-year-old driver warns that “if you expect to find treasures, there are not many”.

Although he did pull out a rifle dating from 1914 to 1918, he says that it was “downright rusty after 100 years in the water”.

“Even the Museum of the Great War did not want it,” he jokes, adding that nothing goes to waste as it is resold or given to scrap merchants. 

'My teenage son found a grenade'

In other French regions too, where bloody battles were fought during both world wars, magnet fishing enthusiasts have discovered shells, ammunition and grenades.

And they can still be active, warns the national public safety authority.

Faced with the hobby's rising popularity in the last nearly two years, including under the Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge in central Paris, the authority has recently made police across France aware of the dangers.

In May, a man was seriously injured after pulling out a shell that emitted mustard gas, in the Nord region, home to the town of Dunkirk.  

Two young magnet fishers in the Somme at the end of July also hauled out a phosphorus grenade, which irritated their eyes, police said.

The pastime is now illegal in France without a permit issued by the state or landowners. 

“We were not aware of the risks… until my son found a grenade,” says Helene Ledien, who lives in the Somme. 

She said that her 14-year-old son Arthur bought a magnet for about €30 on Amazon and regularly fishes with his friend for environmental  reasons.  

'Good for the planet'

Gressier said that his group had hauled out one active shell and hundreds of rusty weapons but knows what to do in that case.

“We establish a security perimeter and we warn the disposal experts,” he adds. 

Despite the warnings, his group says it won't stop the activity that has got them hooked. 

“It's a passion, good for the planet, we will not stop overnight,” says his 26-year-old friend Nicolas, who declined to give his full name.

“People will play cat and mouse,” Devarenne chimes in. 

“Nobody is really afraid, because the police have better things to do than chase after magnets,” he adds.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


IN PICTURES: French town hit by freak June hailstorm

A French town has been hit by a freak hailstorm that left locals clearing drifts of ice in the streets with shovels and snow ploughs.

IN PICTURES: French town hit by freak June hailstorm
Photo: Sapeurs-pompiers des Vosges

The hail struck the town of Plombières-les-Bains in the Vosges mountains on Tuesday morning.

Romain Munier, head of communications for the local emergency services, told French media: “There were up to 60 centimetres of accumulated hail” while in the wider area, “up to 10 millimetres of water accumulated in six minutes”.

Locals were pictured clearing the street of ice with shovels and snow ploughs after the storm passed and the fire and rescue crews for the Vosges area said they had received 56 callouts in total.

Large areas of France are on weather alert for storms until Thursday, as a ‘cold drop’ passes over the country leading to extremely unsettled weather.

In most areas, however, the storms will be confined to heavy rain and thunder.

In neighbouring Switzerland, the Swiss news agency ATS reported giant hailstones up to seven centimetres wide in the canton of Lucerne.

In the canton of Fribourg, the police and fire brigade were called 300 times, including to rescue a class of 16 children and two adults caught in the hail.

Six of the children and one adult were taken to hospital.

At least five people were injured in the German-speaking Swiss cantons, including a cyclist who suffered head injuries from hailstones, according to ATS, whilst in Germany severe flooding has hit parts of the country including Stuttgart.