French ferry firm floundering amid allegations of fraud and political meddling


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The Independent Online

Barring the unforeseen, there will be a shipwreck in the English Channel today. The Sealink ferry empire, which once dominated cross-Channel travel, will slide below the waves amid allegations of fraud, union bloody-mindedness and threats of violence.

SeaFrance, one of two ferry companies operating between Calais and Dover, is likely to be declared defunct by a court in Paris this afternoon, leaving the shortest sea crossing to the British ferry company P&O.

SeaFrance, owned by the French state, has been struggling to survive for years. Its ferries have been idle in Calais harbour since November.

Attempts to save the company have produced accusations and counter-accusations. SeaFrance is alleged to have fallen under the control of a rogue trade union branch, which obstructed a possible sell-off to push its own plan for a workers' co-operative.

A criminal investigation wasbegun last year into suspected systematic fraud aboard its ships, including the theft of up to €5m a year in alcohol, perfume and cigarettes. There have been anonymous threats of violence to dissident union members, other unions and local journalists. The national and regional leadership of the moderate French trade union federation, the CFDT, took the unusual step last week of repudiating its SeaFrance branch. Union branch leaders insist that they are the victims of a "campaign of calumny". They say they developed the idea for a workers' co-operative as private takeover offers were unsatisfactory.