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Sarkozy's U-turn gives SeaFrance a brief reprieve

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2012-01-03

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he will support a bid by a workers co-operative at embattled French ferry company SeaFrance to save the company from sinking. Not all the employees are convinced of the president’s sincerity.

The embattled French ferry company SeaFrance may yet survive after a Paris court on Tuesday postponed a decision to approve a plan by workers to save the firm.

The court’s one-week delay followed the surprise announcement on Monday that France's conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy was supporting a bid by the SeaFrance workers’ co-operative - known in France as a SCOP - which is supported by the powerful left-wing CFDT trade union.

The SCOP’s offer is a last-ditch deal to save the firm, the last French ferry company to operate the once-lucrative Calais to Dover sea route.

Under the SCOP plan, SeaFrance workers would finance the firm’s re-launch from their standard redundancy packages supplemented by an “exceptional” payment from its parent company, the state-owned rail operator SNCF.

In a message from the Elysée presidential palace to SeaFrance published on Monday, Sarkozy said he “had asked the SNCF to put in place an exceptional payment, supplementary to the redundancy packages, to allow workers to contribute sufficient funds to the SCOP.”

Payments could total 50,000 to 60,000 euros for each of SeaFrance’s 880 employees, although about a quarter of these would be likely to take the cash rather than invest in the future of the company.

Workers suspicious of Sarkozy’s motives

At the SeaFrance headquarters in Calais workers belonging to the CFDT told left-leaning daily Le Monde they were “happy but cautious” about the presidential U-turn.

“Secretary of State for Transport Thierry Mariani told us as recently as December 30 that we were extremists and fanatics,” said CFDT official Olivier Thomas.

But others worried about the implications of having the future of SeaFrance funded in large part by an SNCF payout – and whether a deal would leave the future of the firm under partial control of the national rail operator.

They also expressed cynicism at the timing of Sarkozy’s decision to support the workers, with four months to go before national elections and the government struggling with a burgeoning unemployment rate, almost at 10%.

Speaking after the court decision on Tuesday, SeaFrance worker Flavien Agez warned that presidential support was a political “poisoned chalice”.

“Whatever the outcome the state has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain from this act of support,” he told AFP. “We are nothing but pawns in [Sarkozy’s] game of politics.”

‘Failure would be disastrous'

The SCOP’s lawyer Fouad Barbouch, however, played down the inevitable political suspicions between the left-wing trade unions and this latest government initiative to save SeaFrance.

“This situation is developing quickly and it would be wrong to focus on political differences,” he told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday. “Saving SeaFrance is in the general interest and this is a plan that could save hundreds of jobs.”

“Failure to reach a deal would be disastrous,” he added. “Getting government support is a big relief, but we can only judge the merits of that support on the final result. And we will know that next week.”

Like other travel operators, SeaFrance suffered heavily from the 2008 financial crisis and in 2010 was put into receivership.

The firm has been in liquidation – and off the seas - since November, when a Paris court rejected a bid by French shipping firm Louis Dreyfus Armateurs and Danish ferry company DFDS because the offer would see more than half the staff lose their jobs.

Another bid by SeaFrance management in 2011, backed by a 160-million-euro loan from SNCF, was blocked by the European Commission on competition grounds.

P&O, SeaFrance’s main competitor on the Dover-Calais route, said on Tuesday it would take “most vigorous” legal action against any decision by France to support SCOP in putting SeaFrance back to sea.

Date created : 2012-01-03

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