French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told his UK counterpart Priti Patel on Friday that he had cancelled her invitation to a meeting this weekend after criticism of France by Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the Channel migrant crisis.
In a message seen by AFP, Darmanin told Patel the letter from Johnson to President Emmanuel Macron suggesting France takes back migrants who cross the English 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.”
Johnson’s letter to Macron called on France to immediately start taking back all migrants who land in England after crossing the Channel, following the deadliest migrant disaster in the Channel, which killed at least 27 people when their boat foundered off Calais.
Taking back migrants “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 in the letter sent to Macron on Thursday evening.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the letter was “formally poor and its content inappropriate,” in an interview with French TV station BFM on Friday.
France was planning to host ministers from all Channel littoral states, including Patel, for a crunch meeting on the migrant crisis in Calais on Sunday.
A source close to Darmanin told AFP the meeting would be going ahead with the ministers from other European countries but added 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 interministerial meeting on Sunday, which is maintained in the format of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the European Commission.”
Deadliest migrant disaster in the Channel
Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died when the inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday, according to public prosecutors in Lille. A manslaughter probe has been opened.
Five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing were arrested Thursday, according to French interior ministry officials.
Only two survivors, an Iraqi and Somali, had been found and they were recovering from extreme hypothermia and would eventually be questioned, the French interior ministry added.
A pregnant woman was among the victims, said Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart.
The disaster has shaken Calais residents, said FRANCE 24’s Wassim Cornet, reporting from the northern French port city.
There was “a lot of raw emotion” following the tragedy, said Cornet. “A lot of people are also voicing their anger at the French government who they see as at least partly responsible,” he said.
“Most of the people we have spoken to today say they have lots of compassion for these migrants.”
Cornet said that despite the risks, many of the migrants he had spoken to in Calais have not been deterred from making the crossing because they have “seen so much worse” during their migrant journey.
EU migrant ministers to meet
A record wave of illegal migrants seeking to cross the Channel this year is a volatile issue for Johnson and Macron amid rising anti-immigrant sentiments in political circles in both countries.
According to French authorities, 31,500 people attempted to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures that doubled since August.
In Britain, Johnson’s Conservative government is coming under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers.
Darmanin said France had arrested 1,500 people smugglers since the start of the year.
He said they “operate like mafia organisations”, using encryption to stop police tapping their phone conversations.
According to the British authorities, more than 25,000 people have arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.
Protests in northern France over fishing
Northern France will also be hit by protests later Friday on the separate issue of fishing rights.
Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply UK waters if they can prove they operated there in the past.
But Paris says dozens of French boats have had their applications to fish the UK’s rich waters rejected, an assessment strongly contested by London.
Dozens of French fishing boats will block ferries from Britain at three ports of the French Channel – Saint-Malo, Ouistreham and Calais – from midday (11:00 GMT).
In the afternoon, the fishermen will attempt to block the access of goods trucks to the freight terminal of the Channel Tunnel from 2-4pm (13:00-15:00 GMT).
“We don’t want handouts, we just want our licences back. The UK must abide by the post-Brexit deal. Too many fishermen are still in the dark,” said French national fisheries committee (CNPMEM) chairman Gerard Romiti, describing the action as a “warning shot”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)