Talks with the home secretary, Priti Patel, about the Channel boats crisis have been cancelled by France’s interior minister after Boris Johnson called on France to take back people who crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats.
In an escalation of the political crisis after the deaths of 27 people in the Channel, Patel’s counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, said France was disappointed by the demand.
“Making it public made it even worse,” he said.
Johnson had set out five steps in his letter to President Emmanuel Macron to avoid a repeat of Wednesday’s tragedy. In a message seen by the AFP news agency, Darmanin told Patel the letter from Johnson to Macron, suggesting France take back people who cross the Channel, was a “disappointment”.
Referring to Johnson’s posting of the letter on social media, he added: “Making it public made it even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.”
The French government’s official spokesman, Gabriel Attal, added to Darmanin’s criticism of Johnson’s letter on French television calling it “mediocre in terms of the content, and wholly inappropriate as regards the form”.
Attal told BFM TV the letter was “medicore because it does not respect all the work that has been done by our coastguards, police, gendarmes and lifeboat crews … It basically proposes a ‘relocation’ agreement, which is clearly not what’s needed to solve this problem.
“We’re sick and tired of this double talk and outsourcing of problems.”
France was planning to host ministers from all states with Channel coasts, including Patel, for a meeting on the refugee crisis in Calais on Sunday.
A source close to Darmanin told AFP and French media the meeting would be going ahead with the ministers from other European countries but said Patel was no longer invited after Johnson’s “unacceptable” letter.
“We consider the British prime minister’s public letter to be unacceptable and contrary to the discussions we had with our counterparts,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
“Therefore, Priti Patel is no longer invited to the inter-ministerial meeting on Sunday, which is maintained in the format of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the European Commission.”
Johnson wrote to Macron on Thursday asking France to immediately start taking back all migrants who land in England after crossing the Channel and, in an unusual step, posted the entire text of the letter on Twitter.
Taking people back “would significantly reduce – if not stop – the crossings, saving thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs” behind the trafficking, he said.
Johnson’s letter also set out areas for greater cooperation with France, proposing joint border patrols, aerial surveillance and intelligence sharing.
The new row adds to the post-Brexit tensions between Britain and France, with French fishers on Friday due to stage a blockade of Channel ferry ports and stop freight entering the Channel tunnel in protest at fishing rights.
In his letter, Johnson called for joint patrols to prevent boats leaving French beaches; technology such as sensors and radar; reciprocal maritime patrols and airborne surveillance; better intelligence-sharing to arrest and prosecute people smugglers; and a bilateral returns agreement with France alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement.