President Jacques Chirac expressed outrage Friday that patches of oil from a sunken tanker had reached French shores, and he vowed to punish the "rascals" responsible.
Chirac issued the comments at an impromptu news briefing while workers in southwestern France mobilized to clean the coast. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited the area's beaches as large slicks of fuel oil began washing ashore.
Workers have combed affected beaches in the last few days, picking up small clumps of hardened oil.
Officials in the southwestern region of Gironde said Friday that every incoming tide brought new and larger patches of oil to hundreds of miles of shore.
Tests have shown that some, if not all, of the oil comes from the single-hulled tanker Prestige, which split in two and sank off Spain on Nov. 19. Many Spanish beaches have already been blackened.
Chirac said France would relentlessly pursue ship owners and crew members who try to sidestep maritime rules by registering their vessels under so-called flags of convenience, or the registration of ships in countries with lax safety, labor or tax rules.
"France and Europe will not allow shady businessmen, rascals of the sea, to cynically profit.... Captains, owners and contractors of ships" will be punished, he said.
Raffarin visited a beach in Gironde. "I have come here to share with you my anger," he told a meeting of local officials and residents, including oyster farmers who face the potential loss of their livelihood.
Ecology Minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin warned those who live and work along the southwestern coast to brace for the pollution to worsen.