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‘So many dead next to us’: French fisherman recalls Channel horror

The fisherman who alerted rescuers to the catastrophe in the English Channel on Wednesday has told how he is haunted by the images of bodies floating on the sea.

Emergency vehicles, with blue lights flashing at Calais harbour after a boat carrying migrants from France to UK sank, killing dozens
French emergency crews at Calais working on the rescue operation. Photo: Francois Lo Presti / AFP

“Seeing so many dead like that next to us, it was really like a horror movie,” Karl Maquinghen told journalists, after he had disembarked at the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer from the trawler where he works as second in command.

Wednesday’s tragedy in the Channel cost the lives of 27 people. The 17 men, seven women and three children drowned when their inflatable boat lost air and took on water off Calais.

Maquinghen, who has 21 years experience at sea, spoke of his shock and how he now wants only “to hug his children”.

He was the first to spot a body floating in the water from the bridge of the Saint-Jacques II fishing vessel, before realising there were “about 15 dead people, children”.

“We could not see those who didn’t wear life jackets” except for one, dressed in black with a plaid shirt, who floated “not even a metre” from the boat, he said.

 ‘Afraid to haul up nets’

Maquinghen immediately alerted the Cross Gris-Nez, the regional centre which monitors the Channel and coordinates migrant rescues.

“The coast guard was not far away… They came straight away,” he said. “If we had arrived five minutes earlier, we might have been able to save them.”

He said he has been unable to sleep since the trauma. “As soon as you close your eyes, you see the bodies again… We were even afraid to haul up the nets for fear that there would be someone else inside there.”

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

Those who try to reach England on frail boats have been part of his daily life for months. He said he often spots boats attempting the crossing, “every day, every half hour, it happens”.

Since the start of the year until November 20th, some 31,500 people have left the French coast and attempted to reach British shores in small boats.

“The Cross told us that as long as they didn’t ask for assistance and the engine was still running, we couldn’t take them on. So we don’t take them on, we listen to the Cross,” he says.

‘Not long to die’

Maquinghen said he expects to witness more tragedy at sea unless the authorities take action.

READ ALSO OPINION: France protects UK from migrant crisis, a fact Britain will never accept

“I think it’s the first but it won’t be the last time… It will happen every day, especially at this time” with winter approaching, he said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t take long for them to die” with the sea temperature at 10-12 degrees Celsius.

Whereas in previous years attempted crossings decreased with the onset of cold weather, this year they continue unabated, with a new record set on November 11th when 1,185 people managed to land on the English coast.

Maquinghen said he feels helpless rather than angry. “Who do you want me to be angry with? Nothing can be done. Or else, open the tunnel” under the Channel which migrants once used to reach England before security was tightened.

Despite the trauma, Maquinghen said he will return to sea in the coming days. “It’s our job. We have to go back on board. We have to feed our families.” 

READ ALSO France cancels migrant crisis meeting with UK in protest at Johnson letter

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ENERGY

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. 

Nuclear 

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. 

Riots

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.

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