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October 2, 2005 - Sailing Off with a Whole Ship, and the Question of Corsica

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Over the last several years in these pages there have been a few discussions of organized labor - for one example see April 11, 2004, Last Night I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill, about a labor dispute out here. Back then I noted my conservative friend says what's wrong with America is we restrict businesses and the key to getting the economy going again is outlawing unions, and making it illegal for any employee, individually or collectively, to oppose or even to comment on how that employee is being treated. That is, if you don't like your job, or your pay, or your benefits, or you think you workplace is unsafe - just quit. Get another job if you're so damned unhappy. Well, that's one view. Class warfare was in the air. And still is.

But no union over here would try to pull off what is reported below from "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. These folks are serious, as you see here in three successive dispatches from the French capital.

Strikers Snatch Ship

PARIS - Tuesday, September 27 - Listening to radio France-Info news earlier today, I became concerned about the state of France. The radio reported that striking ferry sailors had seized one of the SNCM ships and were sailing it to Corsica. This was a very brief report, followed by an update from the Paris bourse, sports news and weather.

'Sort of casual,' I thought, 'for what is obviously a major escalation in the ongoing war that other countries would call labor relations.' Strikers in France, used to being ignored by management, are capable of inventing unusual and interesting tactics to get attention, but sailing off with a whole ship?

Technically it's like piracy. What is the prosecutor in Marseille doing? Where is the navy, or sea-going police? What will the Prefect of Corsica say about it? Instead of answers, I learned that the municipal council of Perpignan in Languedoc-Roussillon has rejected the notion of renaming the region 'Septimanie.'

It all goes back to the end of August or the beginning of September in 415, when Ataulf was assassinated in Barcelona. It was a time of decline for the Romans, in this area called Septimanie on account of the legion stationed there, or it relates to a union of seven bishops at the time of Visigothic kings. Skip ahead 1589 years to 2004 when Georges Frêche gets elected as the head of the region, and he wants to bring the old name back - but residents, many of whom are Catalan, are against the idea. They think the old name sounds like 'septicémie,' or a serious infection.

Meanwhile the strikers are sailing across the bright blue Mediterranean towards Corsica, where they are expected to arrive about 22:30 tonight. Police forces on the troubled island were guarding another ferry belonging to the private line, Corsica Ferries, after STC and CGT strikers had attempted to block loading.

As evening fell more details have emerged on the TV-news. The general secretary of the Corsica-based STC marine union, Alain Mosconi, told AFP at Ajaccio about noon that his members had 'gotten under way' with the mixed ferry, Pascal Paoli. TV-news reported that 30 unarmed but hooded men boarded the ferry that had a crew of about 60. There are no passengers aboard.

The ferry seizure comes after battles last night in the port of Marseille between the CRS units in full riot gear and using teargas against CGT strikers. The confrontation involved about 200 strikers and the police, and led to the arrest of two strikers.

This in turn set off a blockage of the entire ports of Marseille and Fos sur-Mer on Tuesday, closing down cargo, container, mineral and petroleum shipments. A small group of strikers arrived in Nice Tuesday morning but SNCM had already moved its high-speed ferry 'Liamone' offshore. At other ports a total of nine SNCM ferries are idle.

The events this week follow a series of strikes of the embattled ferry service that is owned by the state. The unions oppose a government plan to hand over control to a private investment group, Butler Capital Partners.

Tonight news agencies are announcing that the government has decided to go ahead this afternoon with its deal with the private investors, saying that their offer was the 'most acceptable.' The state is expected to continue as a minority shareholder. Butler Capital has indicated that it will lay off 350 to 400 sailors out of a total of 2400 who work for SNCM.

In the meantime, somewhere off the coast of Corsica, the hijackers have claimed that they have 'not stolen' the ferry and that they 'are not mutineers.' Union members and the police are waiting for their arrival in the port of Bastia, where CGT marine members have already occupied the SNCM offices.

In Marseille the court is saying that the hijacking is a 'flagrant crime' no different from hijacking an airliner. A judicial source told AFP that conviction could result in a 20-year prison term.

Maritime gendarmes are to investigate.

The two CGT delegates arrested Monday night have had their detention prolonged, but should appear in court on Wednesday. They risk a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros. This afternoon a CRS troop was protecting the commissariat where the two are being held. Union members expect to meet early Wednesday morning to decide whether the port strike will continue.


Commandos Seize Strikers

PARIS- Wednesday, September 28 - Five helicopters carrying government quick-reaction anti-terrorist GIGN forces swiftly converged on the hijacked ferry this morning off the port of Bastia and recaptured it from the strikers who offered no resistance.

The SNCM ferry, the Pascal Paoli, arrived near Bastia in Corsica last night but stayed offshore, controlled by the strikers, on account of CRS troops occupying the port. The GIGN commandos staged their raid to recapture the vessel in daylight, quickly seizing the striking hijackers and handcuffing them. Reports said no firearms were used.

After the action, which took only a few minutes, the ferry turned away from Corsica to return to the mainland, most likely to Toulon where the French navy has its major Mediterranean base.

Corsican protestors occupied Bastia's port and nationalist politicians of the Unione Naziunale de l'Assemblée de Corse denounced the government action, claiming that an agreement had been brokered on Tuesday evening that called for the hijackers to return the ferry to government control. In return they were guaranteed that there would be no police action and no arrests.

The port of Marseille was reported to be still blocked by striking port workers and SNCM ferry crews.




Is Corsica French?


PARIS Friday, September 30 –


If you were thinking that the recapture of the SNCM ferry by government GIGN commandos put an end to the labor conflict, you are obviously unaware of Corsican attitudes. In Toulon late Wednesday, military authorities released 30 members of the Syndicat des Travailleurs Corses - STC - and kept four in custody. Shortly afterwards union sympathizers battled with police in Bastia, on Corsica.


On Thursday morning in Paris prime minister Dominique de Villepin announced yet another new ownership montage for the troubled ferry line, proposing 70 percent private ownership, 25 percent for the state and 5 percent for the employees. This was rejected by the general secretary of the CGT marine unit in Marseille, Jean-Paul Israël, and the union continued its strike against the SNCM ferries.


Then the national boss of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, said the prime minister's plan was 'very far away' from what the CGT expected. He demanded clarification of the state's intentions. The marine section of the CFDT also expressed its opposition to the government plan, as well as did the FO.


In the course of Thursday the four sailors held in custody had an initial hearing in court in Marseille. On Corsica tension increased to the point of a rocket being fired at the prefecture in Ajaccio Thursday evening, causing a spectacular explosion but no injuries.


As of Friday no ships have reached Corsica for three days. The last port in operation, at Bonifacio, was blocked this morning, cutting off sailings to and from Sardinia. The airport at Ajaccio is having difficulties and there are no flights at all operating at Bastia.


Fuel truck drivers, members of the STC union, are blocking the exits at the two fuel depots on the island and gas stations are running low on petrol. More than 80 other trucks are stopped at Furiani near Bastia, causing huge traffic jams. Near Ajaccio's airport barricades are hindering passenger access. Authorities estimate that 4000 vacationers are stranded on Corsica, unable to leave.


About 100 SNCM sailors, of all unions, were outside the Palais de Justice in Marseille this morning, awaiting the court's decision about the detention of Alain Mosconi, his brothers Jean-Marc and Patrick, and Félix Dagregorio, all STC militants, and supposedly the ringleaders of the ferry hijacking. Several hundred others, responding to a call by the CGT, gathered in the port area of La Joliette.


In Paris Jacques Chirac 'strongly condemned' the rocket attack and minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy said he wouldn't let 'public order' on Corsica degenerate. Dominique de Villepin said everything would be done to expose the authors to the judicial system.


In Brussels the European commissioner for transport, Jacques Barrot - who is French - said that the state had to reduce its capital investment in SNCM 'over time.'

France's minister of finance Thierry Breton, also in Brussels, said that the state's participation would have to continue, 'at least until the company's finances improved.'


The SNCM ferry line has operated in the red for years, and is currently in a 76 million euro restructuring plan approved by Brussels in 2003 that was supposed to lead to profitability by 2006.  Given the charged feelings over the past few days, there seems to be a possibility that Brussels will agree to an 'actualization' of this ongoing plan.


Late news from Marseille tonight announced the liberation of the four STC sailors who participated in the hijack of the ferry Pascal Paoli.  The quartet has been charged, and released under judicial control until their trial over the objections of the prosecutor.


What's Right With Corsica?


While a slim majority of Corsicans are believed to be opposed to full independence for this island in the Mediterranean, a government plan to unite the island's two departments was narrowly defeated in a vote in 2003. Since Paris dislikes local autonomy, it is possible that the government didn't try too hard to sell the idea.

France gained Corsica from Genoa in 1768 in return for a debt, but even back then some Corsicans were more interested in independence.  In order to buy loyalty France offered Corsican nobles the opportunity of taking French titles, and this is essentially how Napoleon became French.


Called the 'Isle of Beauty' Corsica is sparsely populated, especially in its rugged interior, and is not defaced with walls of concrete silos for tourists along its shores.


In principle Corsica is a region like any other except that it is an island 160 km south of the Cöte d'Azur, and only nine km north of peaceful Sardinia, which is governed by Italy.


In theory Corsica is quite desirable because tourist development is strictly controlled - by Paris - and many local conflicts involve illegal building and temporary facilities. In fact the island's economy is depressed, compared to other Mediterranean islands where development is not so closely controlled.


It is possible that non-Corsicans see a benefit in the lack of development, mainly as tourists from the mainland. The major employer is probably the state and its administrators. This system keeps native Corsicans from becoming moguls in the tourist business.


But if the island is being 'saved' from development, for whom is it being 'saved,' and for how long?



Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis



Editor's Note:


For any reader off to France, be aware of the labor issues:



Friday, 30 September 2005 16:37:00 GMT


AJACCIO, France, Sept 30 (AFP) - The French island of Corsica was threatened with a total blockade Friday as a bitter dispute over privatisation of a state-owned ferry company led to the closure of its main seaports and strikes by airport staff.


Hundreds of tourists were stranded on the Mediterranean island, as government officials set up a 15-member crisis centre to provide relief and coordinate stocks of vital goods such as fuel and medicine.

"At the moment the centre will operate at low capacity, but we'll increase its scope as the problems continue to come in until - if need be - it is managing food supplies," said Laurent Bigot, a senior government official.


Tensions remained at boiling-point on the island - home to some 250,000 people - after another night of violence in which unknown militants fired a rocket at the prefecture, the main government building, in the city of Ajaccio. … [There's more at the link.]



BBC Saturday, 1 October 2005, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK


French police have ended a blockade of the Corsican seaport of Ajaccio by striking workers, amid a row over the sell-off of a state-run ferry company. … [video at link]


Saturday, 1 October 2005 13:40:00 GMT


AJACCIO, France, Oct 1 (AFP) - Hundreds of stranded tourists were rushing to Ajaccio's seaport Saturday to leave the island of Corsica after riot police removed striking workers amid a bitter dispute over the privatisation of a state-owned ferry company.

Nearly 15,000 French and foreign tourists have been stranded on the island since Thursday.


The first ferry operated by a rival private company was expected to leave by Saturday evening, officials said. …


Friday, 30 September 2005 16:57:00 GMT


PARIS, Sept 30 (AFP) - Metro, rail and air transport authorities warned that passengers and commuters could expect major travel woes Tuesday when a nationwide strike is held to demand public sector pay-rises and to protest new labour laws.


Up to half the services running on the Paris metro will be out of operation, the RATP managing authority said Friday. That will prompt many of the six million people who use the network daily to turn to cars, clogging the city's streets.


The SNCF company which runs the country's rail system said that while the Eurostar service linking Paris to London and Brussels should be operating normally, 40 percent of high-speed TGV trains will be disrupted, as will 60 percent of regular trains.


The Civil Aviation Authority said flight disruptions would be seen starting late Monday and would run into Wednesday. It did not give an estimate of how many flights would be cancelled or delayed but suggested passengers contact their airlines directly.



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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