Court orders liquidation of French ferry operator

January 9, 2012 - 11:15 AM
France Britain Seafrance

A P&O cross-Channel ferry arrives at Calais harbour, northern France, Friday, Jan. 6, 2012. Competition company Seafrance, a subsidiary of French railway operator SNCF, is the ferry operator that links Calais, France to Dover, Britain has suspended the ferries. The ruling on the future of the company is delayed to Monday Jan.9, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

PARIS (AP) — A belly-up ferry operator took center stage in France's presidential election campaign after a court ruled Monday it should be liquidated, a decision that jeopardizes the jobs of its nearly 900 French employees.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is trailing in the polls, has publicly intervened in recent days to try to save SeaFrance, a small-loss-making company that hardly counts as one of the business "national champions" heralded in the past by Sarkozy.

His critics call his attempts transparent electioneering, but, with the economy stagnant and the elections set for April and May, Sarkozy is apparently unwilling to give his Socialist opponent an additional club with which to beat him.

SeaFrance, owned by France's state railway operator SNCF, is the last remaining French ferry operator on the popular Dover-Calais route used by 10 million travellers every year. Until court-appointed administrators stopped its operations last November, SeaFrance ferried passengers on the Calais-Dover route on three ships — the Rodin, the Berlioz, and the Moliere.

A Paris court ruled Monday that the company should be liquidated, making the expected loss of its 880 French jobs, as well as 130 more in Britain, a test of Sarkozy's commitment to fighting unemployment. He or his government have intervened repeatedly to dissuade companies from laying off French workers, from carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen to nuclear engineering giant Areva.

Angry SeaFrance employees barricaded a busy highway between Paris and Lille following the court ruling. Meanwhile, Sarkozy pledged to continue the search for a solution to save SeaFrance employees' livelihoods.

"There will be a credible solution, that's what we're working on, for all SeaFrance employees," Sarkozy said at news conference in Berlin, where he was conducting talks on the European financial crisis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I won't give up and I won't accept it as a kind of fatality," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy said the government will meet with SeaFrance employee representatives on Tuesday "to make some proposals."

Two potential solutions are on the table. One is finding jobs for some SeaFrance employees within its parent company SNCF. Another is finding a private buyer willing to keep SeaFrance afloat.

In a surprise move Sunday, the cross-Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel said it would support another option, offering to take the lead role in a consortium to buy SeaFrance's three ferries and rent them to a workers' cooperative.

But the court ruled Monday that the proposed workers cooperative didn't have a feasible business plan.

The second option could see the return of rival French shipping line Louis-Dreyfuss Armement, which last year dropped a bid to acquire SeaFrance alongside Denmark's DFDS after a conflict with SeaFrance's unions.

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Associated Press writer Pierre-Antoine Souchard in Paris contributed to this report.