Olive branch extended to striking ferry workers

29th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 29 (AFP) - A new rescue plan for state-owned Corsica ferry operator SNCM, at the centre of a bitter anti-privatisation protest, would involve private interests taking 70 percent, the state 25 percent and employees 5.0 percent, French prime minister Dominique de Villepin said on Thursday.

PARIS, Sept 29 (AFP) - A new rescue plan for state-owned Corsica ferry operator SNCM, at the centre of a bitter anti-privatisation protest, would involve private interests taking 70 percent, the state 25 percent and employees 5.0 percent, French prime minister Dominique de Villepin said on Thursday.

Private investment firm Butler Partners Capital was prepared to acquire 40 percent of the company and Connex, the transport subsidiary of French utilities services group Veolia Environnement, was interested in taking 30 percent, the prime minister said.

The government had already agreed to sell the entire company to Butler Capital Partners.

That decision had sparked massive protests against the privatisation by labour unions, who blocked the port of Marseille, the country's largest commercial port.

Villepin said the government wanted to "rescue" the ailing ferry company and would hold 25 percent of the business, while employees would be offered a chance to acquire 5.0 percent.

Villepin also signalled that union members in the company who had hijacked one of the ferries in protest at privatisation would be subject to the course of justice.

The dispute over the ferry operator, National Corsica Mediterranean Company (SNCM), has raised questions about government policy on both privatisation and sensitivities on the French island of Corsica, served by the ferries and where nationalist movements are active.

The dispute has led to the violent occupation of the port of Marseille and the nearby Fos refinery harbour, and the hijacking of one of the company's ferries which was subsequently seized dramatically by airborne police commandos.

Villepin, in giving details of a new proposal for private shareholdings in the financially stretched operator, said that Connex was ready to become the "industrial operator" of the business.

Earlier, the French newspaper La Tribune had reported that Connex was willing to take a minority stake, if the government decided to re-open the bidding process.

The report cited Stéphane Richard, the chief executive of Connex, who expressed his interest to the SFE-CGE labour union.

Late on Wednesday, Villepin had met Bernard Thibault, leader of the hardline CGT union, who told reporters later that the subject was not closed, and there were "still possibilities for discussions" with the government.

After Villepin had outlined the latest plan, the price of shares in Veolia Environnement was showing a loss of 0.34 percent to EUR 35.14, but the overall market as measured by the CAC 40 index was down by 0.28 percent to 4,586.95 points.

One Paris broker, who declined to be named, commented: "The first thought that comes to mind after this announcement is why would Veolia want to get involved with SNCM? The two groups are not in the same business."

Another broker, also wondering "what Veolia intends to do in SNCM", took the view that the proposal was mainly "political".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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