RENNES (FRANCE) - French authorities warned Friday about "narco-tourism" on northern Channel beaches after news of more than two tonnes of cocaine washing ashore drew dozens of beachcombers, some equipped with quad bikes.
Locals in villages along the Normandy coast have described an influx of unfamiliar people in luxury cars and 4x4s who have been scouring the sand this week.
Local prosecutor Philippe Astruc issued a public warning on Friday about the risks of taking part in what he described as "narco-tourism".
"The act of taking possession of one of these bundles and transporting it is a crime that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison," he told reporters.
Furthermore, the cocaine posed a serious health risk because it was likely to be 80-90 percent pure, far stronger than anything usually sold by street dealers, he added.
"At the present time, we don't know the purity of this substance," he added, but if it was the usual strength of imported cocaine then it could be "fatal" if consumed.
He stressed that a young man had died in 2019 after taking cocaine that had washed up along the west coast of France in the previous major incident of this kind.
- 4x4s, new cars, quad bikes -
So far, several batches of watertight packages have been found in villages such as Neville-sur-mer, Omonville-la-Rogue and Reville, with the total street value of the cocaine estimated at 150 million euros ($159 million).
"The sea brings us many things, but this is obviously very unusual," the mayor of Reville, Yves Asseline, told the Parisien newspaper. "We've seen people arriving in 4x4s, brand new cars or with quad bikes on the beach, sometimes at dawn with head torches."
Armed police were patrolling the beaches regularly with the help of a helicopter which was flying low over the water to spot any suspect packages in the sea.
Investigators were still uncertain where the cocaine came from -- whether traffickers threw it overboard deliberately to avoid arrest, or whether it came loose from their boats in heavy weather, sources close to the investigation told AFP.
On Wednesday, the government said that French police had seized 27 tonnes of cocaine last year, a five-fold increase compared with the level 10 years ago, as Europe faces a surge in trafficking and use of the drug.
Seizures were up five percent last year compared with 2021, according to interior ministry figures, with more than half of the narcotic transiting via the West Indies and France's poverty-stricken South American region of Guiana.
As the illegal trade has swelled, most cocaine now enters Europe through northern ports like Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and France's Le Havre.