(Recasts with Sarkozy comments, reactions)
By Pierre-Henri Allain
LE GUILVINEC, France, Nov 6 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy announced millions of euros in emergency aid on Tuesday to soothe fishermen angry at soaring fuel costs, turning jeers to applause during a whistlestop visit to a French fishing port.
Hundreds of fishermen have been striking for five days, blocking ports and oil depots in northwestern France in protest at diesel fuel costs they say are killing their business.
“I have come to announce concrete measures to save the fishing industry,” Sarkozy said. “I will not abandon you.”
The strike was set to continue until Wednesday when the fishermen will meet Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Michel Barnier to discuss how to implement the Sarkozy plan, but initial response appeared positive.
“It’s almost word for word what we asked for on Saturday,” said one fishermen’s leader Philippe Le Moigne.
With transport, energy and public sector staff all due to strike this month over pension reforms, Sarkozy appeared keen to head off a damaging fishing protest — especially as he vowed to to lift purchasing power during his election campaign.
“We want a 140 percent pay rise too,” shouted one protester, a reference to a pay rise parliament gave Sarkozy last week, as the president began his visit to boos.
“I will not accept insults from the fishermen,” retorted Sarkozy during exchanges that echoed his confrontation with rail staff who went on strike last month over pension reform.
The president went into a round-table meeting with fishermen’s leaders, announcing fishing businesses would be exempt from paying welfare charges for six months at a cost of some 21 million euros ($30.54 million) a quarter.
He also proposed a plan to modernise the fishing fleet, including more fuel-efficient diesel engines, and to study a mechanism to offset diesel costs against fish prices.
Fishing firms say the recent surge in oil prices has pushed the cost of diesel to around 52 euro cents a litre from the 30 euro cents they had budgeted for.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy’s hands-on style is popular with voters and the president left to applause after outlining his proposals to fishermen’s representatives.
But Frederic Cuvillier, a Socialist deputy and mayor of the port of Boulogne-sur-mer, said the diesel/fish price offset idea was “nonsensical and dangerous for the profession”.
Sarkozy squeezed in the Breton visit before heading off to Washington to meet U.S. President George W. Bush, and has made a habit of such high-profile visits designed to break log-jams.
At the weekend he flew to Chad to collect seven Europeans freed after a spell in jail on suspicion of involvement in an attempt to fly African children to Europe. (Writing by Jon Boyle; editing by Ralph Boulton)