French president Nicolas Sarkozy caused a media storm in January when he reportedly told trawlermen in Boulogne-sur-Mer it was time to 'get out' of the EU quota system. Newspapers claimed Sarkozy had said he would grab the opportunity to change the system later this year, when France takes over presidency of the EU.

Fisheries minister Michel Barnier was quick to play down the comments, saying France had no intention of scrapping national quotas - but did want to 'improve' them by fixing the limits in terms of years rather than months. These comments, too, were confusing, given the EU already has multi-annual quotas for flourishing species.

This incident demonstrates that fishing and politics can be uneasy bedfellows in France - just as on this side of the Channel.

The quotas for the Atlantic and North Sea of course restrict earning potential. It also increases reliance on imports - given the French's enthusiasm when it comes to fish, demand far exceeds domestic supply. So why, then, add a further complication by exporting to the UK?

The answer, it seems, lies in variety. Currently, the UK fishing industry is trying to drive a change in consumer mindset and move away from the current reliance on just a few species of fish. The French could well play on this 'sustainable' shopping by offering further ranges of products from their shores.

There is plenty of potential to grow French seafood sales in the UK by offering a point of difference, says Richard Barbé, export manager for Chancerelle International, France's market leader for canned sardines and white tuna in olive oil through its Connetable brand.

Chancerelle's products are widely available in major French multiples. The company is now looking for a greater presence in the UK, building on Connetable's listings at Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Budgens.

UK supermarkets, keen to promote sustainability on their fish counters and aisles, will no doubt be looking at new varieties and products to achieve this. They will also be looking for creditability.

In the UK, the major retailers are increasing their demands for fish to come from sustainable sources. The most recognised way to achieve this is through accreditation with the Marine Stewardship Council.

"This a major issue for the fisheries," says Barbé - Chancerelle itself gained MSC certification last October. "It's a great way to work on sustainability. We have been canners for more than 150 years; we do not want our jobs to be stopped because of a lack of fish. That is probably a part of our motivation and commitment for MSC certification."

But consumers should be prepared to pay more for sustainable products, he warns.

"We are having difficulties getting our prices up in the UK," says Barbé. "It is the only place in the world we have this [problem]. Either you accept to protect the resource, to buy fish at its real price and work for the future, or you can stop buying fish."

Fish processing companies also have the rising cost of raw materials to contend with. "The price of ingredients such as wheat starch and rapeseed oil is increasing," says Estelle Le Coz, spokeswoman for Comapêche, which makes crabsticks (see case study). "The rising cost of petrol is impacting on us too."

One of the best-known French seafood companies is seeking to develop a UK market at the value-added end. Brittany-based Halieutis supplies breaded seafood products under the Chronofour brand.

"We have set up partnerships with most of the major French retailers: Carrefour, Leclerc, Cora, Picard and Système U for retail; Brake France, Elior, Pomona and Unilever for foodservice," says export manager Franck Dieudonne.

It has now gained its first listing in Costco, which is to sell 1kg bags of skinless, boneless cod from June. "Consumers are looking for added-value products; and it is a pioneer market in terms of trends and innovation," says Dieudonne.

While Sarkozy will be hell-bent on getting the French out of the EU quota system, his fishermen are likely to be placing as much effort to get in to the UK market. The latter appear to have a more realistic goal.n