Sea France: Sarkozy backs workers’ rescue

A French court on Tuesday delayed its decision on a worker cooperative's bid to rescue the ailing cross-Channel ferry business SeaFrance after President Nicolas Sarkozy made a surprise U-turn to back the takeover.

Sea France: Sarkozy backs workers' rescue

The Paris commercial court postponed its decision on the legality of the CFDT union-backed takeover bid, the last one on the table to rescue the firm, until January 9, Philippe Brun, one of the workers’ lawyers, said.

With unemployment threatening to rise above 10 percent of the workforce four months ahead of a presidential election, the unpopular Sarkozy has made preserving jobs a priority of his as-yet unannounced bid for another mandate.

The right-wing president held a meeting with key ministers on Monday and backed the cooperative – known as Scop – to be financed by workers’ lay-off payments from SeaFrance’s parent company, state-owned rail firm SNCF.

“I have asked SNCF to set-up an exceptional supra-legal indemnity for sacked workers to allow them to use these funds to finance the Scop,” Sarkozy wrote in a letter to Scop-SeaFrance.

The cooperative’s offer, backed by the CFDT union, is the only one remaining to save the last French business plying the formerly lucrative Dover-Calais route after the Paris commercial court rejected other bids in November.

The company directly employs 880 people in France’s hard-hit northwest and at least as many jobs again indirectly.

The workers would finance the new cooperative with their lay-off payments as well as the “exceptional” payments, which Transport Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said could amount to between €50,000-60,000 per worker.

Regional authorities have said they could contribute €12 million to the company, which along with the workers’ indemnities would cover the €40-50 million necessary to restart the business.

With many seeing a political coup for Sarkozy, who will not be seen as to blame if the cooperative venture fails, the workers themselves remain sceptical about the Sarkozy’s U-turn.

“It’s a good thing for the state to be interested in SeaFrance,” said the workers’ lawyer Philippe Brun.

“But the way it’s doing it, the solutions it’s proposing, are bad. It’s a preposterous legal arrangement that has little chance of leading anywhere.”

SeaFrance competes with the British firm P&O in carrying millions of passengers a year across the world’s busiest sea route but both companies have suffered from competition from the Channel Tunnel since 1994.

SeaFrance was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and in 2010 it shed 700 jobs and was put into receivership.

A P&O spokesman told AFP that the company would take action at European Union level if the cooperative takeover went ahead.

“If it’s true, it beggars belief,” the spokesman said.

“If there is any suggestion that the French state will continue to support this company, we will lodge an immediate complaint with Brussels and we will pursue that complaint most vigorously.”

SeaFrance has been in liquidation since the Paris commercial court on November 16 rejected bids to save the firm, although the company was allowed to continue to operate until January 28 pending a decision on the fresh offer.

French shipping firm Louis Dreyfus Armateurs and Danish ferry company DFDS had made an offer to invest 50 million euros in the firm and buy five of its ships for another five million euros.

But the companies’ plan would have involved more than half of SeaFrance’s staff losing their jobs, and the court ruled that this could trigger industrial action that would further damage the ailing firm.

The court said the companies’ offer for the ferries was also too low, and rejected the CFDT-backed cooperative because of a lack of capital.

A bid by SeaFrance management to buy out the firm, backed by a €160-million loan from SNCF, was blocked last year by the European Commission on competition grounds.

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Travel in Europe: UK to scrap all Covid travel rules

The UK is set to scrap all Covid-19 travel restrictions in what the government described as a "landmark moment".

Travel in Europe: UK to scrap all Covid travel rules

Testing is no longer required for vaccinated travellers, but the UK government has announced that it will scrap all Covid-19 travel rules on Friday, March 18th.

“As one of the first major economies to remove all its remaining Covid-19 travel restrictions, this is a landmark moment for passengers and the travel and aviation sector,” said the Government in a press release. 

From 4am on March 18th:

  • Passengers going to the UK will no longer be required to fill out a Passenger Locator Form before travel;
  • Passengers who are not vaccinated will not be required to take a pre-departure Covid test, or a Day 2 test following arrival. Fully vaccinated travellers are already exempt from having to do this;
  • Hotel quarantine for travellers coming from ‘red list’ countries, of which there are currently none, will also be scrapped by the end of the month. 

“We will continue monitoring and tracking potential new variants, and keep a reserve of measures which can be rapidly deployed if needed to keep us safe,” said UK Health Minister Sajid Javid. 

The UK has lifted all Covid-related rules including mask rules and mandatory self-isolation if you test positive for Covid.

Some European countries still have Covid restrictions in place for unvaccinated people coming from the UK. 

Until March 18th

Until the new rules come into effect, all travellers are required to fill out a passenger locator form. 

Unvaccinated travellers are also required to take pre-departure test and a test on or before Day 2 following their arrival. 

The UK border officers will recognise proof of vaccination provided with an EU Covid Certificate.

For the UK “fully vaccinated” means 14 days after your final dose of a EMA/FDA or Swiss approved vaccine (Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson). 

After a period of confusion, the UK government says that it will accept mixed doses administered in the EU (eg one dose of AstraZeneca and one of Pfizer).

However people who have only had a single dose after previously recovering from Covid – which is standard practice in some European countries – are not accepted as vaccinated by the UK.