Glassboats of the Seine battle with US rivals

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IF YOU make your living in glass boats, it may not be a good idea to throw stones - even legal ones. A riverain war has broken out on the Seine between the Bateaux-Mouches, the best-known and oldest of the tourist cruise companies, and an American-owned rival.

Last week, all 13 of the actual Bateaux-Mouches - immense, floating greenhouses that ply the river from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame - were seized by the bailiffs.

The company was charged with non-payment of a pounds 900,000 debt to the government agency that manages French canals and rivers. The founder of the Bateaux- Mouches company retaliated yesterday with a verbal broadside, accusing his rivals and the Port of Paris of collusion and "gangsterism".

Jean Bruel, 84, a Resistance hero who later dabbled in far-right politics, said he had no intention of "striking my colours for a bunch of technocrats and an American company". Although his fleet remains under legal restraint it can still operate.

"There is a lot of collusion in this trade," he said yesterday. "There's a lot of liquid cash coming in without a properly controlled ticket system. Someone needs to take a closer look at the gangsterism which is happening in the tourist transport business on the Seine."

The water war began 10 years ago when the Port autonome de Paris granted rights to a new company called Batobus, to run a stopping service on the Seine, allowing passengers to get on and off at tourist spots. Batobus belongs to a company called Sodexho, part of the American hotel group, Marriott.

The Bateaux-Mouches and other established companies had always been restricted to a circular, non-stopping voyage. Passengers had to return to their starting place. The companies had frequently been refused bus-stop rights. After a long legal battle, the port of Paris agreed in 1996 to invite public tenders for the stopping trips licence. The contract was awarded to Batobus. Two days before the winner was declared, Mr Bruel was beaten so badly by persons unknown he ended up in hospital. Police have not charged anyone.

Mr Bruel, and other companies, continued to demand equal stopping rights but were offered only ports of call on obscure parts of the river, little visited by tourists. A pounds 40m-a- year business was at stake. Bateaux-Mouches complained to the European Commission, claiming millions of pounds of public money had been spent on new jetties for the Batobus service. This, they said, was unfair competition.

A similar complaint was lodged with the French competition council this month. A week later the bailiffs impounded all of Mr Bruel's pleasure craft, which are worth pounds 25m. Bateaux-Mouches denies owing pounds 900,000 to the French navigable waterways agency. The company admits there was a legal dispute over fees but says this has twice been settled in its favour.

Mr Buel points out that the director of the waterways agency was also director of the port of Paris. Officials of the port of Paris declined to comment.