President Emmanuel Macron warned Boris Johnson on Thursday not to “exploit” for political ends the deaths of 27 migrants in the Channel as Franco-British squabbling threatened to overshadow attempts to forge a more coordinated response.
With the victims— who include seven women, one of whom was pregnant, and three children — still unidentified, the two leaders clashed in a telephone conversation, according to the Elysée Palace.
President Macron apparently took umbrage at Boris Johnson’s tone during the call after which the Prime Minister told reporters: “We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves.”
Mr Macron hit back, according to the Elysée, by asking the Prime Minister “to refrain from exploiting a tragic situation for political ends”.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Macron said he would hold the UK to account and reiterated his call for more help in fighting the smugglers.
“We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don’t want asylum in France. We tell them they’re obviously able to do so, and there are centres in Calais and Dunkirk where they can go, but we’re going to reinforce in fact saving them at sea.
“But basically we have got to develop [relations] with our partners and hold them to account. We’ve got to develop things in a far stronger way, we’ve got to reinforce co-operation — co-operation [with] Belgium, Holland, Germany, but also Britain and the [European] Commission.
“We want to better integrate also the British to prevent these flows by dismantling the [smuggling] networks. We’ve being doing that in the last few weeks.”
Mr Macron’s prime minister Jean Castex also held a crisis meeting on Thursday with ministers to discuss new measures and invited the British, Belgian, Dutch and German immigration ministers to a meeting in Calais on Monday.
The talks would aim to “better combat the networks of smugglers who are behind these migration flows”, insisting that a response on a “European scale” was needed, his office said
Both sides agree that more must be done to smash smuggler networks, many of whom French interior minister Gérald Darmanin recently said were based in UK.
But British law enforcement hit back at suggestions that the criminal kingpins behind smuggling are all based in London, where they enjoy luxurious lifestyles.
Franck Dhersin, the vice president of transport for the northern Hauts-de-France region, accused the UK police of failing to arrest those responsible.
He said: “In France what do we do? We arrest the smugglers…To fight them, there’s only one way – we need to stop the organisations, you need to arrest the mafia chiefs.
“And the mafia chiefs live in London… They live in London peacefully, in beautiful villas, they earn hundreds of millions of euros every year, and they reinvest that money in the City.
“And so it’s very easy for the tax authorities to find them”.
But one senior police source insisted such suggestions were “wholly inaccurate” and said the reality was much more complex.
The source said: “Of course there will be some London based criminals who are involved in this evil trade, but these are international networks operating and based throughout Europe.
“It is not the case that this is being run out of London by a handful of gangsters. For understandable reasons you tend to find Afghans smuggling Afghans, Iranians smuggling Iranians etc.”
A spokesman for the National Crime Agency added: “Tackling Organised Immigration Crime is a key priority for us.
The NCA alone has around 50 ongoing investigations into networks or individuals in the top tier of organised immigration crime or human trafficking – the highest harm. Some of these sit right at the top of the NCA’s priority list.”
“Much of the criminality involved lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France, Belgium and beyond.
“This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations. This approach is bringing operational results in the form of arrests and prosecutions.
“We look to target and disrupt organised crime groups at every step of the route, in source countries, in transit countries such as Greece, Italy and Turkey, near the UK border in France and Belgium, and those operating inside the UK itself.
“Much of this work is necessarily covert, but we know it is having an impact here and overseas.”
Britain wasn’t the only country that should do more, said Mr Darmanin, who pointed the finger at Belgium from where “60-70 per cent of migrants” came before crossing the Channel.
“They come through Germany, they come through the Netherlands and they go to Belgium,” he told RTL.
“The people-smugglers then pick them up and try within hours, within days, to take them to the beaches. It is unfortunately well known, as has been for a very long time, that it is via France, via Calais and Boulogne, that you can easily get to England”.