French ferry raided by military forces

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

French military commandos boarded a ferry boat on Wednesday morning that had been taken over by ferry company strikers from the Société nationale Corse-Méditerranée (SNCM). The strike erupted after the French government announced its intention to privatize the company, which had been losing money for decades. The strikers seem to belong to the Corsican workers' union, a trade union close to Corsican nationalists.

The strikers captured the ship, called Pascal-Paoli, in Marseille. They sailed her to Bastia where she was intercepted by a ship of the Marine Nationale and boarded by special forces. The military team included members of the GIGN (the French Gendarmerie's rescue and anti-terror unit) and, according to some sources, naval special forces.

The prosecutor's office at Marseille has opened a criminal enquiry for "evident crime", with the charge of piracy — a crime which, according to article L224-6 of the French Penal Code, is punished by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. If the charges are retained, the initiators of the event will face a jury trial before an assize court. There are, however, questions as to whether this criminal qualification applies in this case, since the strikers did not resort to violence in stealing the ship.

The strikers are in protest against the French government's intention to sell SNCM to the investment fund Butler Capital Partners, led by businessman Walter Butler. Mr Butler claims that he can put SNCM back into financial shape within 4 years. Opponents of the privatization plan contend that the sale price is an amount greatly inferior to what it is worth, even if only for its assets.

The French government has had significant problems with money-losing state-owned companies in the past. SNCM is, however, a special case, due to the delicate political situation in Corsica. By comparison, the private company Corsica Ferries is in good financial shape. Some sympathetic protesters, however, caused damage to Corsica Ferries offices.