Court sinks French workers' bid to save SeaFrance ferries

9th January 2012, Comments 0 comments

A French court on Monday ordered the SeaFrance cross-Channel ferry service closed with the loss of over 1,000 jobs after rejecting a last-ditch bid takeover bid by a workers' cooperative.

But with three months to go before a presidential election in which the economy will be a top voter concern, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government insisted there was a way to find a solution.

"There is no valid takeover offer... (SeaFrance) activity cannot be continued," the court said.

"The candidate itself estimates needs for restarting of 50 million euros," the court said of the CFDT union-backed bid to take the company over that had been bolstered at the last minute by a Eurotunnel offer of help.

Eurotunnel boss Jacques Gounon had said that the company was "a candidate for a majority stake... in a transport firm which would take over the SeaFrance ferries" and then rent them to the cooperative.

The workers' cooperative, SeaFrance SCOP, was backed by the local CFDT union branch and was the only takeover bid remaining. It had been hoped that the Paris commercial court would delay its ruling in light of the offer.

"It's over, it's still more horrible because there was a final light of hope," said tearful 20-year veteran SeaFrance employee Dominique.

Around 300 of her colleagues briefly blockaded the main A1 motorway north of Paris in protest at the court's decision, with police deployed amid motorists' attempts to force a way through the barricade.

"It's an enormous waste," said employees' lawyer Philippe Brun. "A social waste first of all because it concerns the fate of 1,010 jobs, and an economic waste as well."

SeaFrance employs 880 people in France and its British branch employs 130.

Sarkozy, desperate to avoid redundancies ahead of the two-round April-May presidential election, swiftly announced that: "There will be a credible solution for all employees."

Transport Minister Thierry Mariani said he wanted "to explore all possibilities" and the government appeared determined to find a solution for the now bankrupt firm owned by state rail operator SNCF.

SeaFrance has been in liquidation since the Paris commercial court on November 16 rejected bids to save the firm.

A private sector bid by French shipping firm Louis Dreyfus Armateurs and Danish ferry company DFDS was rejected in November because it would have seen many staff sacked and probably triggered industrial action.

A bid by SeaFrance management to buy out the firm, backed by a 160-million-euro loan from SNCF, was blocked last year by the European Commission on competition grounds.

"We must be able to find a solution," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told journalists.

"We have partial possibilities with the Dreyfus group, regrading possibilities (for employees) with the SNCF. With that we should be able to build something."

Workers had hoped to finance the 50 million euro cost of the new cooperative with their lay-off payments from their failed employer, along with 12 million euros from local authorities.

But sources close to the matter said that fewer than 250 workers had agreed to put their lay-off cash into the cooperative project because of a "real distrust" of the CFDT local branch.

France's Court of Auditors published a report in 2009 accusing the local CFDT branch of nepotism and a lack of transparency after it came to dominate SeaFrance.

Ahead of Monday's court ruling, the CFDT's national organisation said the local branch had a "heavy responsibility" for the company's current predicament.

CFDT's national boss Francois Chereque said the cooperative's takeover plan was not viable and pointed out that the bid by Louis Dreyfus Armateurs offered to keep 640 workers on.

© 2012 AFP

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