France defers reprisals in post-Brexit fish fight

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France and Britain held a second day of talks on Tuesday to try resolve a months-long row over fishing licences that had threatened to escalate into a full-blown trade war.

With just hours to go to a Tuesday deadline for Britain to grant dozens of French fishermen new permits or face retaliatory measures from Paris the two sides rowed back from the brink.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced that while talks were underway France would not implement its threat to ban British boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections.

"It's not while we're negotiating that we're going to impose sanctions," Macron said on the sidelines of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, in remarks welcomed by the British government.

Macron's office later confirmed that sanctions were off the table "until Thursday at the earliest", when Britain's Brexit minister David Frost is due in Paris for talks with France's Europe minister Clement Beaune.

But a source in the French presidency stressed to AFP Tuesday that the threat of reprisals remained and Paris was awaiting a response from London to its latest proposals by Wednesday.

A source at the European Commission, which is brokering the talks, said they were taking place over videoconference and focusing on licences awarded to EU fishing boats to operate in the coastal waters of the UK and the Channel Island of Jersey.

The source confirmed that the EU and France were awaiting responses from the British side, with further talks planned on Wednesday.

In a statement on Monday after France's decision to step back from its retaliation threats, a British government spokesperson said: "We welcome France's acknowledgement that in-depth discussions are needed to resolve the range of difficulties in the UK/EU relationship."

- Macron urged to talk tough -

The feud centres on the rights of small-scale fishermen in northern France to continue operating in the waters surrounding the UK and Channel Islands in the post-Brexit era.

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 dozens of French boats have had their applications to operate in the UK's fish-rich waters rejected.

In France, where campaigning has begun for next year's presidential election, politicians from both right and left urged Macron to take a stern line.

"I'm all for giving it an extra 48 hours but we'll have to be very tough indeed with the British at that point," conservative presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand told France 2 television.

His sentiments were echoed by a leading Socialist, Patrick Kanner.

"France is right to flex its muscles but when you do so sometimes you have to go all the way," the senator told France Info radio.

- From migrants to submarines -

Macron's decision to defer retaliatory measures marks a de-escalation in the tensions which had been building between France and Britain for weeks.

Paris is also fuming over London's involvement in a new defence pact with the US and Australia that left France out in the cold.

The two neighbours have also sparred over the spike in the number of migrants slipping across the Channel to Britain.

Britain and Jersey claim French fishermen have failed to provide sufficient documentation to support their licence applications and threatened to sue France if it disrupts trade flows.

"If somebody behaves unfairly in a trade deal you're entitled to take action against them and seek some compensatory measures," Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Sunday.

"That is what we will do if the French don't back down."

The feud has already seen a British trawler detained in a French port and France's ambassador in London summoned to the Foreign Office for the type of rebuke usually reserved for hostile states.

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