PARIS - Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is visiting the French port city of Calais on Friday to try to defuse rising tensions three days before local businesses, dockers, truckers and farmers hold protests to demand that an overcrowded migrant camp be closed.
The minister was to meet with local officials, business representatives and police who man roadways to keep migrants from hopping trucks to Britain.
Record numbers of migrants — possibly more than 9,000 — are currently living in the makeshift camp, reduced in size by half in March.
Authorities have said the camp must be fully dismantled, but protesters want a date. They say migrants have become an economic drain on the city and a stain on Calais' image.
Tensions between migrants have led to clashes, and two died in fights within a month. Seven others were killed this year on the roadways where they try each night to hop trucks crossing the English Channel via Eurotunnel freight trains or ferries leaving the port.
But tensions are also rising among Calais locals and those with a stake in its economy. They plan to use their vehicles to block the A16 highway on Monday, a move aimed at paralyzing traffic on the route used to access the Eurotunnel and port.
"I understand them. I support them. We are all determined to demand this dismantling" of the camp, Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart said on Europe 1 radio. She has pressed for the government to bring in the army to control growing chaos in Calais.
Cazeneuve, in an interview with the regional Nord Littoral newspaper, said some 2,000 police are currently guarding highways, the Eurotunnel and port in Calais, with more arriving Friday.
The minister said that fully dismantling the camp — half of which was razed in March — is the goal but he wants it done "in stages." The bid to demolish the 72 shops and restaurants in the makeshift camp was a first step, he said. A court halted the plan but the state has appealed.
Aid groups fear any quick dismantling of the squalid camp, known as "the jungle," will increase chaos and create a bigger humanitarian crisis than the one at hand.
"Asking for the dismantling of the camp today would mean a worsening of the situation instead of solving the problems," said Francois Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants, one of a handful of aid groups that warned in an open letter that razing the camp would scatter migrants and aggravate the situation protesters deplore.
The groups called on the French government to quickly expand its ability to take in migrants elsewhere and demand that Britain shoulder its responsibility — or threaten an end to the Touquet accords.
The accords, signed in 2003 between France and Britain, effectively moved Britain's border to northern France. Undoing them would return British police, customs officials and sniffer dogs to their home across the English Channel — and open the door to migrants camped in Calais and other areas along the French coast.