Struggling SNCM France-Corsica ferry operator to order four ships

PARIS Fri Mar 7, 2014 2:19pm EST

A car ferry operated by the SNCM (National Maritime Corsica-Mediterranean company) is seen at docks in the port of Marseille January 2, 2014 as workers of the company decided to continue a strike to denounce the terms of a government plan to rescue the shipping company and 2,600 jobs. REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson

A car ferry operated by the SNCM (National Maritime Corsica-Mediterranean company) is seen at docks in the port of Marseille January 2, 2014 as workers of the company decided to continue a strike to denounce the terms of a government plan to rescue the shipping company and 2,600 jobs.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Laurenson

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PARIS (Reuters) - Loss-making France-Corsica ferry operator SNCM, which is partly owned by French water and waste group Veolia Environnement (VIE.PA), plans to order four new ships, an SNCM spokesman said on Friday.

The spokesman said the board had approved deals for four new ferries, two of them firm orders and two of them purchase options, to renew the fleet as part of a restructuring plan for the firm.

He did not provide details on the vote or explain how the ferry operator plans to finance the purchases, with each ship estimated to cost 150 million to 170 million euros.

Last year, the European Commission ordered France to recover 440 million euros ($610 million) in state aid from the long struggling ferry operator, which has threatened the survival of a business the government is eager to rescue.

France has appealed the order.

Veolia, the company's main private shareholder, has said it will not put new money into SNCM and will not be held liable for repaying the subsidies.

SNCM is 66 percent-owned by Transdev, a public transport joint venture between Veolia Environnement (VIE.PA) and state-backed bank Caisse des Depots (CDC), while the state owns 25 percent and its employees 9 percent.

A Transdev spokeswoman refused to say how Transdev's members on the SNCM board had voted. Veolia declined comment.

A source familiar with the situation said that for the board to approve the acquisition, the representatives of the state, the staff and the CDC would all have had to vote in favor.

At a February 25 SNCM board meeting, in which government representatives abstained as they waited for additional information, Transdev had opposed the ordering of the four ships.

"Transdev and Veolia will not support any further financing of SNCM, because the restructuring plan is not viewed as credible," Veolia said in a statement last week.

Veolia added that it was ready to divest its 66 percent stake in SNCM for a symbolic price and abandon its claims on SNCM in order to facilitate its recovery.

($1 = 0.7214 euros)

(Reporting by Jean-Fran├žois Rosnoblet in Marseille and Geert De Clercq in Paris; editing by Jane Baird)

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