French fishers are threatening to blockade the ports in the Channel Islands in an escalation of a post-Brexit row in which the French maritime minister has backed calls to cut off Jersey’s electricity supply.
French officials have also said they will close their offices in Jersey and stop products from the island entering France.
The Jersey Evening Post has reported that the possibility of stopping all commercial vessels accessing French ports and cutting off the electricity was discussed at two protests in France.
However, Jersey’s external relations minister, Senator Ian Gorst, said there was no justification for such severe measures.
Gorst told the Post he found the French reaction “extremely disappointing” and “disproportionate” and hoped it could be resolved through dialogue.
Responding to questions in the national assembly on Tuesday, Annick Girardin, the French minister for maritime affairs, said she was “revolted” by the UK government’s behaviour over its waters and France was ready to retaliate.
The British crown dependency of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, relies on “the transmission of electricity by underwater cable”, Girardin said as she was questioned by assembly members, raising the supply as a point of leverage.
“I would regret it if we were to get there,” the minister said, but “we will do so if we have to.”
She said France was ready to take “retaliatory measures” after accusing the Channel Island of breaching the new Brexit trade deal by imposing new restrictions on French access to Jersey waters.
One industry leader said the row appeared to stem from the Granville Bay Treaty, which sets out fishing rights in shared waters, which ended on 1 January as a result of Brexit, rather than a wider UK-EU fight.
UK government sources, mindful of how quickly the post-Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland blew up, said attempts were being made to resolve the dispute before it worsened.
David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator who is the minister responsible for relations with the EU, held scheduled talks with the French minister of European affairs, Clément Beaune, on Tuesday afternoon.
The row highlights the challenges felt by fishing communities promised a fairer deal in the post-Brexit fishing regime.
But France has accused the UK of breaching the terms of the Brexit deal once a new licensing system kicked in on 30 April.
Local French politicians said Jersey published on Friday a list of licences issued for 41 French boats over 12 metres that met the requirement that they had fished in Jersey waters for a least 10 days over a period of 12 months in the past three years.
But they said their owners were then told “against all expectations” of “inexplicable conditions” including restrictions on the number of fishing days and the fishing equipment allowed.
One French assembly member, Bertrand Sorre, said a fisher from Granville, who fishes for scallops and whelks “on average 40 days a year” in Jersey waters, had been told he would have access for only 11 days. “The anger is roaring and the desire to do battle is palpable,” Sorre said.
The island contingency planning committee met on Tuesday to discuss plans in case the situation escalated and French fishers tried to blockade St Helier, or if other action was taken by the French including cutting off electricity supply.
“We know it is very serious and it’s urgent,” said Gorst.
Jersey receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables.
In a statement, political representatives of the La Manche and Normandy regions said that “in order to show their incomprehension and their dissatisfaction” over new restrictions in post-Brexit fishing licences they “decided to close their representation in the Channel Islands”.
A blockade of ports would risk fresh food supplies to the island, the majority of which comes from the UK.
Jersey Electricity moved on Wednesday to reassure customers that it had backup in the “unlikely event” that France cut supplies.
In a tweet, it said: “Following enquiries from our customers regarding the French fishing dispute, JE can reassure customers that in the unlikely event electricity supplies from France are disrupted, La Collette Power Station and Queens’ Road has capacity to supply Jersey’s electricity requirements.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said “to threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate”.
A spokesperson said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters. The UK government is constitutionally responsible for the international relations of the crown dependencies.”
They added that the UK was “working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period for licensing” and trusted the French would “use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems”.