It probably won't rank with Waterloo and Trafalgar, but the Battle of Poole Harbor will go down in the annals as a small victory, at least, for the British side in the Beef War of 1999.
The skirmish unfolded on the docks here shortly after midnight as hundreds of angry British farmers confronted a pair of frightened French truck drivers. The drivers had arrived late Tuesday night on the ferry Coutance with vans full of French beef, bound for the markets of Birmingham and Manchester. The farmers waved their British flags, filled the air with chants of "No Frog Food!" and blocked the road until the Frenchmen retreated, backing their long trucks up the gangway and onto the ship from whence they had come.
The farmers pronounced their siege a success, even though most suspected that the two trucks and their French cargo would be back on British soil in a day or two. "The object is not to stop the odd lorry," said Paul Simpson, a weathered cattle farmer in tweed cap and Wellington boots who led the demonstrators on the docks. "It is to get the public to stop buying French food until the French start dealing fairly."
The farmers' guerrilla action was one of dozens of demonstrations and protests that have broken out as the British grow increasingly angry about the latest food fight across the English Channel.
This summer, the European Union ruled that British beef is safe to eat, lifting an embargo imposed after a disastrous epidemic of "mad cow disease" swept Britain's beef herds. All EU countries are once again importing British beef--all, that is, except France, which still maintains that British beef is unhealthy.
The EU and the World Trade Organization are gearing up, slowly, to invoke sanctions against the French government. A herd of British politicians has crossed the channel to protest--including a dozen who blocked traffic on the Champs-Elysees today with a banner bearing a revised version of Marie Antoinette's most famous line: "Let Them Eat British Beef." Last week Prime Minister Tony Blair took up the issue in a tete-a-tete with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
The French have responded with classic Gallic disdain. So Britain's farmers have decided to fight their battle on economic terms: by convincing British consumers to "just say non" to French food imports.
Pickets from the National Farmers' Union are pacing through the parking lots of supermarkets across rural Britain urging people to buy Stilton cheese instead of Roquefort and Dorset new potatoes instead of Charlotte baby Reds. Spotting the French goods to boycott is easier for consumers here than it might be in an American supermarket, because almost all meat, dairy, and produce in British stores is labeled by country of origin.
Newspapers have published long lists showing people which British products will substitute for French favorites like Dijon mustard or pate.
Some of the nation's snootiest French restaurants are advertising that they've removed French imports from their menus--although there's a limit to how far these things can go. The respected Clos du Roy bistro in Bath has replaced Burgundy beef with grilled fillet of Scottish beef, but has not yet found the courage to drop its French wines in favor of chardonnay from Australia.
While the press here has strongly supported the home team, farmers are worried that most people don't even know that their beef is still banned in France. "We went through years of pain" with mad cow disease, said Dave Hill, a cattle and pig farmer from Lulworth.
"We culled our herds and ran our farms at a loss for three seasons. Now our cattle are perfectly healthy, but the French still won't let us in. We think if the ordinary British consumer knew what was going on, he would be just as frustrated as we are."
The frustration was evident among the farmers who gathered at the chilly docks here in western England early this morning to block the latest shipment from France. Paul Simpson and other local leaders had the notion that if they could just talk to the French truck drivers and explain the plight of British farmers, the truckers would turn around and go home.
But the 60 police officers warily encircling the demonstrators wouldn't let Simpson get near the French beef trucks. So the angry farmer stormed the dock and shouted menacing curses until the truck drivers decided that back on the ferry was the best place to be.
"At least for tonight, we have stopped the French imports," Simpson said into his bullhorn. "And we'll keep the pressure up until no more French food comes here--or until we have the right to send our beef over there."
CAPTION: Members of the British and European parliaments demonstrate on the Champs-Elysees against French refusal to honor the lifting of the European Union ban on British beef.
CAPTION: A policeman confronts a British farmer at the gates of the Poole port in Dorset, where protesters forced a pair of truck drivers carrying French beef to retreat.