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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: AV Installation Engineer

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to business growth, this is...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Care Support Workers

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this care company base...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£21000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent