A 24-hour strike by dockworkers paralyzed France's seven biggest ports on Wednesday.
Twenty-six vessels are stranded at Marseilles, France's biggest port, and container shipping is at a standstill at Le Havre, the country's leading box hub. Rouen, Europe's biggest grain export hub, has also shut down, and dockworkers are blocking access to the Port of Nantes-St.Nazaire.
Striking dockworkers burned tires outside the Marseilles headquarters of CMA CGM, claiming that France's biggest ocean carrier will benefit from a "big present from the state" when container terminal operations are privatized.
Dockworkers have held rallies at the other six state-run ports that will be affected by the government’s planned reforms. There have been strikes at individual ports since April 17 and a 24-hour nationwide stoppage on March 26.
The government shows no sign of backing down as the reform plans were presented to a meeting of Cabinet ministers in Paris on Wednesday.
Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau insisted that the reforms, which apply to seven publicly owned ports, are vital to improving the competitiveness of the French waterfront. French ports "have great potential, and single-digit growth or no growth in the case of Marseilles," he said. "Everywhere else, in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, (container traffic) is exploding."
The unions say privatization of facilities and the transfer of 2,000 jobs, including crane operators and maintenance workers, from the payroll of the port authorities to private stevedores will lead to job losses.
But Bussereau insisted that the reform plan "is not intended to cause social regression. There is no ideological ambition; it aims to revive our ports."
The CGT union warned there will be "serious economic consequences" and "paralysis" of the ports unless the government backs down. In 1992 the union, the largest on the waterfront, shut ports for almost six months to protest moves to transfer dockworkers to private stevedores. It also held a 17-day strike at Marseilles last year to protest a bid by Gaz de France, the state gas company, to use its own employees, instead of port workers, to operate a new terminal.
The government says it will invest 445 million euros ($712 million) through 2012 to modernize port infrastructure to boost France’s combined container traffic from 3.6 million TEUs last year to 10 million TEUs by 2015. It says France's share of the European container market has fallen by 50 per cent between 1989 and 2006.