Corsica ferries set to resume service, maybe

13th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

MARSEILLE, France, Oct 14 (AFP) - France's debt-ridden SNCM ferry company was set to resume its services on Monday at the end of a 24-day strike during which workers blockaded ports in Corsica and Marseille.

MARSEILLE, France, Oct 14 (AFP) - France's debt-ridden SNCM ferry company was set to resume its services on Monday at the end of a 24-day strike during which workers blockaded ports in Corsica and Marseille.

The cargo-passenger ship Pascal Paoli, which was turned back in September, was set to become the first boat allowed to sail for the Corsican port of Ajaccio overnight Thursday.

According to the harbour master, however, it remained blocked in Marseille. The SNCM management could not be reached overnight for comment.

The continued impasse appeared to be caused by a paperwork problem.

General Labour Confederation (CGT) representative at the ferry company, Bernard Marty, said during the night that normal port activities had not been resumed because the local prefecture had not processed the necessary end-of-crisis paperwork.

The prefecture in its turn said the necessary protocol should come from the ferry company's management.

There seemed to be general agreement that the Pascal Paoli would set sail later Friday.

All passenger lines to Corsica, Tunisia and Algeria were also expected to resume on Friday, according to SNCM.

On Thursday seamen voted by a large majority to return to work, clearing the way for the state-owned operator's privatisation -- which had been the main bone of contention.

Strikers meeting on board a ferry in the Mediterranean port of Marseille voted by 519 to 73 to end their action in order to prevent the National Corsica Mediterranean Company declaring bankruptcy.

The strike was called on September 20 to protest against government plans to sell the SNCM to private investors.

It has cost the company EUR 1.5 million per week, triggered nationalist-related violence on the island of Corsica, and led to the hijacking by workers of a passenger ship on September 27 with its storming the next day by helicopter-borne commandos.

Sympathy strikes also shut down the port of Marseille -- France's largest -- for two weeks and led to severe disruption on the city's transport system.

SNCM management -- which posted an annual deficit of EUR 29.7 million in 2004 -- had warned that they would officially declare the company bankrupt at the end of this week unless work resumed.

Government ministers congratulated seamen on their decision to call off the strike, saying it had saved the company from collapse with the loss of all 2,400 jobs.

"It is good news for the company, but also for the whole of the region, for Marseille and for Corsica," said prime minister Dominique de Villepin. "We are now in a position to discern the future in a good light."

"I confirm that the rescue plan will be put into operation as planned," said finance minister Thierry Breton. "The quicker activity resumes, the further the risk of bankruptcy will recede."

But Jean-Paul Israel, secretary general of the seamen's branch of the CGT, warned that tempers were still running high.

"The fight does not stop there. It is tough on the workers, but I wish the private investors all the best -- because the staff hasn't given up," he said.

Under a revised privatisation package the government has agreed to retain 25 percent of the SNCM, with private investment firm Butler Capital Partners and transport company Connex sharing 66 percent, and staff taking nine percent.

De Villepin has also promised that 400 predicted job cuts will come through voluntary redundancies and early retirement.

The state body that controls the SNCM -- the General Maritime and Financial Company (CGMF) -- was to meet in Paris Friday where it was expected to agree on a financial lifeline to get it through to the privatisation.

The 30-year-old SNCM owns 10 ships which service routes from mainland France to Corsica and north Africa. It has been in financial freefall thanks to growing competition from cheaper private operators and repeated strikes.

The government, which has bailed out the SNCM on numerous occasions, is prevented by European Union competition rules from injecting more capital except in the context of a sell-off.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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