EXPLAINED: Why are France and the UK fighting about fish?

It is so far a war conducted mostly in words, but the French government has threatened actions - so what exactly is the fishing dispute with the UK about?

Fish on sale at the market in Brittany, France
Fish on sale at the market in Brittany, France. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

Is this something to do with Brexit?

Yes, this relates to the trade deal agreed between the UK and the EU back in December. The deal mostly concerns post-Brexit trading agreements, standards and customs checks but it also concerns fishing.

The fishing aspect was slightly overlooked in coverage of the deal, which was reached just days before the Brexit transition period ended on January 1st 2021, because other aspects of trade are simply much more important for the economies of both the UK and the EU.

But fishing has a political importance, as well as obviously being important to people who make their living in the industry.

ANALYSIS Why the new UK-France fishing row could get nasty

What does the deal say?

The principle of the agreement was that British and French fishermen should be able to continue working as they had before Brexit, although things will change in the future.

EU boats are allowed continued access to the UK exclusive economic zone (12 to 200 miles from the coast), with quotas gradually being reduced over the years to come. The UK government has granted 1,700 licences to UK boats to fish in these waters.

But the tension is over licences to operate in Britain’s fish-rich territorial waters, which lie 6-12 nautical miles from the coast, as well as the waters close to Jersey. The deal states that EU fishermen can continue to fish in these waters if they could prove that they had been fishing there in recent years.

However fishermen do need to apply for new licences to carry on fishing and this is where the trouble has erupted.

Licenses for French fishermen are issued either by London or by the self-governing crown dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey, depending on where they want to fish. Although the Channel Islands are not part of the UK they are crown dependencies and rely on London for security and foreign policy issues, so are involved in post-Brexit issues.

London has issued 100 licences to French boats for its territorial waters, while 75 have been rejected, according to figures from the beginning of October.

For Jersey, 111 permanent licences and 31 provisional licences have been issued, while 75 boats have been rejected.

The Treaty itself is vague on the point of ‘pre-established fishing patterns’ and does not specify what proof must be provided, or even if any proof is needed, but the UK has issued its own list of rules requiring French fishermen to submit proof of their fishing activity between 2012 and 2016.

The majority of the licence applications rejected appear to be smaller boats, many of which don’t have onboard satellite systems and have therefore struggled to provide the proof demanded of their pre-Brexit fishing patterns.

So the row is about 150 small fishing boats?

In essence yes, although it’s really about politics.

Paris is furious about what it sees as bad faith from UK authorities in refusing to grant the licences, which comes on top of a general frustration within the EU about the UK’s failure to fully implement the Brexit deal.

The French government is also under pressure to defend its fishing industry and probably has one eye on votes from the coastal communities in next year’s presidential elections.

The UK on the other hand is desperate to salvage a Brexit ‘win’ after making big promises to fishing communities about the benefits that Brexit would have for British fishermen, few of which have so far materialised.

So what now?

So far this has largely been a war of words, although a demo by annoyed French fishermen blockading the Jersey port of St Helier in May did lead to the UK sending a Navy gunboat.

But the French government is sounding increasingly irate and set a deadline of November 1st for the issue to be resolved, saying that if no progress is made then retaliatory measures would begin. These measures include blocking access to certain French fishing ports for British vessels and increasing checks on lorries travelling between France and the UK.

This deadline has now been pushed back after the UK’s Brexit minister accepted an invitation to come to Paris and hold further talks on November 4th. 

A meeting on the issue in Brussels is also scheduled for Friday, November 5th.

Member comments

  1. I suggest the reason that half the French fishing fleet are unable to provide “pre-Brexit fishing patterns” is not the lack of “onboard satellite systems”. All vessels have used GPS chart plotters for at least the last 20 years, the problem is that those digital “records” more than likely show they have been fishing illegally in British waters, hence a reluctance to hand them over…….

    1. As anyone who lives in France knows, if you want a permit to do anything, you must submit the correct documentation. Now, it seems, France finds it unfair that the UK and Jersey are applying the same standards.
      One can imagine the howls of protest if British authorities were to start impounding French fishing boats, which is a very good reason to begin doing exactly that.

  2. To my mind any threat or counter-threat outwith the subject in dispute merely weakens the argument of its maker, in that it introduces hot-headed emotion, irrelevance and probable worse trouble ahead.
    if parts of the Brexit fishing deal are unclear on the subject, then these are still for negotiation without table thumping and that is likely to involve compromises by all concerned participants.
    As to British fish, should we remember that something like 80% of British catches are exported ( ie. Britain wants just the 20%) and involves less than 2% of GB’s gross domestic product.
    As a Brit, I’d prefer to see GB leading the situation to a happy conclusion under agreeable terms.

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EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 


France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 


Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.