French ferry firm floundering amid allegations of fraud and political meddling

 

Paris

Barring the unforeseen, there will be a shipwreck in the English Channel today.

The rump of the Sealink ferry empire, which once dominated cross-Channel travel, will slide below the waves amid allegations of fraud, union bloody-mindedness, threats of violence and political manipulation.

SeaFrance, owned by the French state, one of two ferry companies operating between Calais and Dover, is likely to be declared defunct by a commercial court in Paris this afternoon. The shortest sea crossing between Britain and the Continent could be left in the hands of two operators: Eurotunnel and the British ferry company P & O.

Efforts were being made yesterday by the French government to save something from the wreckage. A private shipping firm, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, has offered to compete on the Calais-Dover route using two of the three SeaFrance ships and fewer than half the existing 1,000 SeaFrance jobs, including 127 in Kent.

SeaFrance, owned by the French state railway, SNCF, has been struggling to survive for years. Its three modern car ferries, the Rodin, Berlioz and Molière, have been idle in Calais harbour since November. Attempts to save the company have produced a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations in recent days.

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 was launched last year into suspected systematic fraud aboard SeaFrance 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, leaders of 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, the CFDT Maritime Nord. The union federation published a letter in which it threatened to exclude local leaders if "the suspicions of obscure and fraudulent practices" were true.

These "obscure practices" are said to have included the assumption of hiring rights at SeaFrance by local union leaders who gave preference to family and friends. Unqualified members of a local amateur football team, AS Marck, are reported to have been employed aboard the ferries. The president and coach of the team were senior officials of CFDT Maritime Nord.

Union branch leaders insist that they are the victims of a "campaign of calumny" by the French press, the government and their own national union leadership. They say that they developed the idea for a "workers' co-operative" because the private takeover offers were manifestly unsatisfactory.

President Nicolas Sarkozy wrong-footed his own government last week when he appeared to back the co-operative plan, an idea rejected by his Transport minister as a doomed project.

The President suggested that the 880 SeaFrance employees in France should pool their redundancy money to raise the €40m needed. Both local and national union leaders later rejected Mr Sarkozy's idea as a "bluff".

SeaFrance is the last survivor of the shipping lines owned by the national railway companies which dominated cross-Channel travel for much of the 20th century and came together in the 1970s and 1980s as Sealink. Unlike its successful British rival P & O, SeaFrance, with less than 20 per cent of the market, has struggled to find a viable business model since the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.

A proposal to refloat the company with €200m of government aid was blocked by the European Commission last year after a complaint by P & O.

Attempts were made over the weekend by a rival, non-union co-operative of SeaFrance workers to resurrect private takeover plans.

The Tribunal de Commerce in Paris is expected to order the company's dismemberment today, but may delay a decision until Wednesday.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy