Dawn was still four hours away and the small Normandy port of Carteret was alive, some boats hurriedly unloading their catch for a rapid turnaround, others turning on their lights and firing up their engines for the first time that night.
Minutes after 3am on Thursday they had left the quayside and, in pitch darkness and a gentle swell, were pushing smartly out to sea to join a growing armada of 60-odd boats from Cherbourg right the way round to St-Malo.
Ringing in their ears were the words of David Sellam, from the Caen office of France’s inter-regional maritime directorate, who had told them at a fiery impromptu meeting in Granville market on Monday that they were up against “people of ill-will”.
The island of Jersey was in the hands of “extremists”, Sallem said. “All they want is to see French fishing diminished, and they are using Brexit to do it. We want peace but we must prepare for war. If we want to bring Jersey fishing to its knees, we can.”
Acts of war were not yet, however, what Laurent Blondel and Michel Duchemin, captain and first mate of the Presque’Ile II, were considering. “We’re here to make ourselves heard, to protest, not to insult,” said Duchemin. “We will stay peaceful.”
The Jersey authorities “have to listen”, Blondel told a reporter from Ouest-France onboard his boat. “We cannot work with their new licences, with restrictions on the number of days we can fish, the species we can catch. We have to remedy that.”
Until 31 December last year, when the UK finally left the EU’s orbit, fishing rights in Jersey’s waters were governed by the Napoleonic Treaty of the Bay of Granville, which Normandy fishers had believed would form part of the Brexit fisheries agreement.
It did not. French boat owners, some of whom rely on their Jersey catches for up to 80% of their annual turnover, are now obliged to apply for individual licences and must submit proof of historical fishing activity in the island’s waters. An initial list of 41 licences published on Friday also included multiple new restrictions.
“There are boats that used to fish for three or four species and can now only catch one,” Blondel said. Some have been barred from fishing for species they are specially equipped to catch; others allowed into Jersey waters only seven days a year.
According to the Normandy and Brittany fishers’ federations, which have combined their organisations for the Jersey campaign, about 250 French boats are concerned by the island’s measures, representing about 900 families, along with 2,000 jobs on land.
In riposte, local authorities in Granville and St-Malo earlier this week barred Jersey fishers from selling their catches at the two ports’ markets. But at Monday’s meeting in Granville, many French fishers felt a more forceful protest was needed.
Gathered off St Helier in the grey light of dawn, some soon began letting off flares. A few Jersey boats sailed out to join them, including the Normandy Trader, owned by Chris Le Masurier, who has been strongly critical of the Jersey government.
Others were less charitable: French fishers photographed a sleek speedboat with two men on board, raising a middle finger. A French boat was later filmed ramming the stern of what appeared to be the same boat. A witness said it had been “antagonising” the flotilla and the incident did not represent the overall atmosphere.
Watched by two Royal Navy patrol vessels, the HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, several flotilla members sailed into St Helier at 7.30am, briefly blocking the departure of the weekly freight ferry to St-Malo before being promised a meeting with authorities.
With two French patrol boats, PCG Athos and PCG Themis, by now also on station just outside Jersey waters and tensions mounting, the French launched another incursion just before 10am. “They’re taking the piss, we’re going back in,” shouted one fisher.
In St Helier, flags were dotted around the buildings not because of the French blockade, but in preparation for Liberation Day, celebrated each year on 9 May, to mark the end of the occupation by Nazi Germany during the second world war.
The mood was mixed – some bristled at the French fishers’ actions, others had sympathy. “It’s all a bit absurd, really,” said Eleanor from St Helier. “It seems to be an administrative-political shambles which is being exploited by the UK and French governments and the EU.”
She said she found Boris Johnson’s “electioneering and gunboat diplomacy baffling, and bound to make the situation worse. Jersey and French fishing have suffered massively from Covid and Brexit. We’re hoping a diplomatic solution can be found.”
Mike, a taxi driver, disliked the idea of the UK prime minister stepping into a “local” dispute. “We can look after ourselves,” he said. “The way to sort out this sort of problem is for people to talk about it in a civilised way, not with the threat of violence that boats with guns inevitably bring.”
Soon after 10am, the French armada’s VHF channel announced – to cheers – that the island’s external affairs minister, Ian Gorst, would meet a delegation of the fishers, including their leader Dimitri Rogoff, onboard the Normandy Trader within the hour.
The hour came, and went.
In the event, it was not until 11.40am that Le Masurier’s boat collected the half-dozen delegates and carried them to meet Gorst and the Jersey environment minister, who were on another boat in the harbour. Two hours later, the Normandy Trader re-emerged and the French boats gathered round.
The news was not good. “It’s rubbish, frankly,” Cyril Piraud, the skipper of the Pearl from Granville told the assembled fishers over the VHF. “I’m devastated. I wonder why we even went to see them.”
Piraud said the Jersey authorities “are putting all the blame on the French state, which they are claiming did not send the right information”. The fishers’ dispute would have to be continued on dry ground and by other means, he said.
“If nothing is done, they’ll just get rid of us, one by one,” Piraud said, according to Ouest-France, adding that the French maritime affairs minister, must now “carry out her threat” to cut off Jersey’s power supply from the mainland.
Don Thomson, head of the Jersey Fishermens Association, said no one had been panicked by the day’s events, but “it was good to have the navy ships on the scene, and the support of the government”. He said Jersey fishermen felt shafted by the deal Johnson had done on fishing.
“Because of the ban on live bivalves we are still banned from landing any scallops in the EU,” Thomson said. “It is really a big issue to have to sell your boat and leave the industry your family has been in for generations. These guys are essentially getting licences for free to fish in our waters.”
Heading back to France beneath sodden grey skies at 2pm – just as most of the British press landed en masse from Southampton – a fisher from Gouville insisted it was French fishers who had been hardest hit.
Jersey was being particularly tough on young fishers, he said, some of whom were repaying loans of up to €800,000 (£700,000) on new boats but by definition have little evidence of prior fishing activity in the island’s waters. “They just want to keep them out,” he said. “It’s daylight robbery, basically.”
One source close to the negotiations said the underlying cause of the dispute was the labyrinthine channels set up by London and Brussels for life outside the EU.
Since Brexit, Jersey has the right to impose conditions on fishing, but must notify the UK first, which in turn had to inform Brussels and then France. “Somewhere on the way, the notification about the licences got lost,” the source said.
Thomson, meanwhile, predicted the standoff was far from over. He was confident Gorst had not conceded any ground on the French demands that the conditions on fishing days and equipment be dropped. “It is important that they stay,” he said.
But French fishers appeared equally determined. Jean-Claude La Vaullée, from Carteret, said the battle now had to be fought ashore. He had been fishing off Jersey for more than 40 years and had been astonished to see that his new licences permitted him to continue doing so for all of 11 hours a year.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “An absolute joke. They don’t want to take onboard a word of what we’ve said. At least we’ve done what we could to get our message across. Now it’s up to the government to take over and defend us.”