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POLITICS

UK gives 23 more post-Brexit permits to French fishermen

Britain has granted another 23 licences to French fishermen, a government spokesperson said on Saturday, a day after a deadline set by Paris to resolve a post-Brexit battle over fishing rights.

The harbour of Ouistreham, northwestern France
The harbour of Ouistreham, northwestern France, where French fishing boats blocked access to ferries last month in protest at post-Brexit arrangements. Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

The EU had set London a December 10th deadline to grant licences to dozens of French fishing boats under a Brexit deal signed last year, with Paris threatening European legal action if no breakthrough emerged.

The licences were agreed Friday night after British officials met European Union counterparts and followed what the spokesman called an “evidence-based approach” ensuring vessels qualify to work in UK waters.

The spokesperson added that the approach “provides stability and ensures the sustainability of our fisheries”, with the UK granting 18 licences and the Channel Island of Jersey five.

The EU hailed the agreement as “an important step in a long process” towards implementing the 2020 Brexit agreement and said work continued to license seven more vessels by Monday.

But France said it would “continue to work” to obtain a further 80 licences it insists its fishing fleet is entitled to.

France had previously said 104 of its boats still lacked licences to operate in British and Channel Island waters that should have been granted under the Brexit agreement.

With the 23 permits granted Saturday, France is still seeking 81 approvals having received 1,027 in total so far.

Under the deal, EU fishermen can continue to work in British waters if they can prove they used to fish there.

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Protest action
“This work has accelerated in recent days… France and the EU continue to work together to ensure the full application of the trade and cooperation agreement,” said Fisheries Minister Annick Girardin and European Minister Clement Beaune in a joint statement.

Paris had threatened to lodge a complaint with the European Commission over the dispute.

That could have seen the EU impose financial penalties or even tariffs on British goods if Britain was judged to be reneging on its commitments.

Some 83 vessels have received licences since the EU attempted to intensify negotiations over outstanding applications in late November, according to Brussels.

French fishermen last month disrupted cross-Channel ferry and freight traffic in protest at the post-Brexit arrangements and consequent loss of trade.

Half a dozen fishing boats blocked access to ferries at the northern port of Calais and the port of Ouistreham in Normandy to the west.

In May, protesting French trawlers massed in front of Jersey’s main port and even caused a brief standoff with Royal Navy vessels.

The UK is highly dependent on French ports, particularly for fresh food imports, and any extended blockade would have the potential to have a significant impact.

The EU and Britain are also locked in a separate trade row over checks on products entering the British province of Northern Ireland after the UK government unilaterally postponed the introduction of checks.

The dispute has exacerbated deteriorating bilateral relations between Britain and France, who have clashed this year over migrant crossings in the English Channel, post-Brexit trade arrangements and submarine sales to Australia.

The British announcement comes a day before EU fisheries ministers meet in Brussels on Sunday to decide on annual fishing quotas in European waters.

The EU is holding talks separately with the UK towards fixing annual fishing quotas in their shared waters by the end of December.

READ ALSO: Macron vows not to let Channel ‘become a cemetery’ after at least 27 people die

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POLITICS

How a French city has rekindled France’s annual burkini row

The Alpine city of Grenoble is set to reignite one of France's recurring summer rows on Monday when it votes to authorise the "burkini" in public swimming pools.

How a French city has rekindled France's annual burkini row

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, has become almost as topical as ice cream and sun hats during France’s holiday season in recent years.

Seen as a symbol of creeping Islamism by its critics and an affront to France’s secular traditions, many right-wingers and some feminists would like to ban it outright.

It is prohibited in most state-run pools — for hygiene, not religious reasons — where strict swimwear rules apply to all, including men who are required to squeeze into tight-fitting trunks.

Grenoble’s city council, dominated by the EELV green party, is set to scrap its bathing dress code on Monday, effectively authorising long body coverings, beach shorts and topless bathing.

“Our intention is to remove all of the abnormal clothing restrictions,” mayor Eric Piolle said recently. “The issue is not being for or against the burkini specifically.”

Opponents see it differently, including the influential conservative head of the wider Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, who has promised to withdraw funding from the city. 

“I am convinced that what Mr Piolle is defending is a dreadful dead end for our country,” Wauquiez said at the beginning of May, accusing him of “doing deals with political Islam” to “buy votes”.

Discriminatory

The regional spat has put the burkini back in the headlines nationally, animating French talk shows and the political class ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

The issue of how people dress for the pool touches on highly sensitive topics in France, including fears about the influence of Islam and threats to the country’s cherished secularism.

The right to worship freely is constitutionally protected, but the French state is also bound by law to be neutral in religious matters, including inside institutions.

“The burkini aims, purely and simply, to impose Islamist values at the heart of bathing areas and public leisure pursuits,” an open letter written by opposition councillors in Grenoble said last week.

Attempts by several local mayors in the south of France to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches in the summer of 2016 kicked off the first firestorm around the bathing suit.

The rules, introduced after a string of terror attacks in France, were eventually struck down as discriminatory.

Three years later, a group of women in Grenoble caused a splash by forcing their way into a pool with burkinis, leading the prime minister at the time to insist that the rules should be followed.

French sports brand Decathlon also found itself at the centre of a similar row in 2019 when it announced plans to sell a “sports hijab” enabling Muslim women to cover their hair while running.

For or against?

Monday’s vote in Grenoble “is an important moment for everyone concerned and their allies, but also in the fight against Islamophobia and control over women’s bodies”, local campaign group Citizens’ Alliance wrote on its Facebook page.

Demonstrations supporting and opposing the move are also planned in the city following the council meeting where mayor Piolle is expected to succeed in pushing through the change.

French feminists are split, with some seeing the burkini as a symbol of male oppression and others such as Caroline De Haas writing that “no one should be stigmatised in a pool because of their choice of swimwear”.

Grenoble would not be the first to change its rules, however.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear.

The debate about the burkini comes as French Muslim women footballers are battling to overturn a ban on the wearing of religious symbols during competitive matches.

The French Football Federation currently prevents players from playing while wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

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