French Concept of State Action at Sea

Although France has the second biggest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world (3.9 million sq mi), it does not have a Coast Guard to protect it. Like in many other domains, France has instead developed a specific concept to coordinate the action of the many administrations acting in the maritime domain: “l’Action de l’État en Mer”) or “the State Action at Sea” (SAS).

What is the State Action at Sea?

SAS describes a comprehensive approach of all government-led maritime operations, with the exception of the defense missions. It covers over 45 missions, organized in 10 categories, which address an exhaustive panel of issues: from sovereignty and protection of national interests, to combatting illegal activities, ensuring the safety of people and goods, or protecting the environment.

When EEZ were created in 1976, France had to tailor an organization in order to protect French interests at sea. Instead of creating a specific Coast Guard corps, France chose to rely on a unique maritime authority, and the versatility of assets belonging to the different administrations operating at sea.

Governance and organization

In mainland France, the Maritime Prefects, three Navy vice-admirals, have the delegation of the Prime Minister’s authority for SAS within their respective maritime domain. In the Overseas Territories, a government’s delegate for SAS acts on behalf of the Prime Minister, with the support of the local maritime commander (a Navy officer).

The General Secretary for the Sea organizes and coordinates this structure, under the authority of the Prime Minister. He chairs the Director Comity of the Coast Guard Function, which ensures the coordination and sharing of all the maritime assets of the different administrations operating at sea and along the coastline. There are eight of these: the French Navy, including the Maritime Gendarmerie, the Customs, the Maritime Affairs, the Gendarmerie, the Directorate-General of the Overseas, the Border Police and Civilian Protection.

What are the missions?

One of the main concerns of the French government’s policy for SAS is combatting illegal migration in the Channel, in the Mediterranean and around Mayotte (due to Comorian migrants). It is a complicated task, between law enforcement and safety of life at sea. Additionally, the BREXIT has raised tensions with the UK in the Channel on that matter.

Drug enforcement, especially in the West Indies and in the Mediterranean sea, is also an important topic. Although the seizures were massive in the late years, they remain relatively minor compared to the estimated global volume of the traffic.

Illegal fishing is another issue withing SAS framework. As an example, Fisheries Protection off the French Guiana faces an endemic illegal activity by Brazilian fishermen, with a high level of violence.

Current and future challenges

On a larger scale, the pillaging of Argentinian’s and Equatorian’s fishery resources by Chinese fishing armada raises the question of the protection of the vast French EEZ. While only the French Navy is able to operate in the high sea, its current downsizing due to previous budget cuts and delayed renewal programs, rises as a serious concern.

AIS tracks around French Polynesia EEZ (red line)
AIS tracks around French Polynesia EEZ (red line)

Former and current Chiefs of Staff of the French Navy have launched an ambitious program to equip all warships with UAVs in order to increase the capacity of control of maritime assets by ten times. However, these new means are not expected before several years.

Moreover, the necessary protection of the maritime environment is likely to collide with increasing industrial activities (offshore wind turbines, mineral exploitation…) in an already engorged space, due to maritime traffic, fishery and military activities. This will challenge the limited number of French assets available for SAS tasks, while tensions keep rising on sovereignty issues and delimitation of disputed maritime areas.

Perspectives for the State Action at Sea

In a report published in 2019, the French National Court of Audits noted the lack of coordination between the different entities involved in the SAS. After the resignation of Catherine Chabaud, Delegate for the Sea and the Littoral, a Ministry of the Sea was finally created in July 2020. However, without any authority over the other ministries involved in the maritime domain (such as the Economics or Transportation), it is likely to remain an empty shell.

In its plan for 2030, the French government underlined the tremendous prospects offered by France’s EEZ, which could increase even more in the coming years with the extension of the Continental shelf. Shall this new positioning of France as a major maritime nation of the 21st century become a reality, massive investments in the SAS, both in action and coordination capacities, will be needed.

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