MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Garbage piled in the streets, oil tankers idling off the coast, lines of anxious drivers at petrol stations: the port of Marseille is making a name for itself as the capital of France’s social unrest.
As strikes against pension reform sweep France, the country’s second city and biggest port has claimed center stage with its three-week-old dockworker strike depleting fuel depots just as refinery workers joined nationwide strikes over pensions.
Hit by rail strikes, postal strikes, street marches and school disruption this week, on top of a long-running garbage collectors’ strike and blockaded docks, the Mediterranean city is getting such a name for resistance to reform that mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin has snapped back at unions.
“The CGT is killing the port of Marseille,” the mayor, from the ruling conservative party, told French television, referring to one of the biggest unions. He said sending schoolchildren onto the street to protest was “staggeringly” irresponsible.
His comments came as budget airline Ryanair threatened to wrap up its Marseille operation in a spat over contracts, potentially affecting 1,000 people who work there or in related sectors. This came shortly after news of the closure of a Unilever tea factory that employed 182 people.
Long known for its rebellious streak, Marseille is becoming symbolic of France’s unwillingness to bend its labor rules and social benefits in line with other European countries, something that highlights the concerns of foreign companies looking for places to invest.
“It looks bad — it makes Marseille look like an undeveloped city,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named.
“I’m sure they’re snickering in Rotterdam and Hamburg — this is not good for France’s image abroad.”
The port dispute in Marseille began three weeks ago when dockworkers at Fos-Lavares oil port downed tools over the privatization of unloading operations and the loss of some of their job privileges.
Managers at the port area went for an ironic response, publishing a spoof job ad in business daily Les Echos mocking port workers as spoiled and unaware of their good fortune.
Titled “The Best Job In the World,” it listed alleged job conditions for port workers including a 4,000-euro ($5,561) monthly salary, 18-hour weeks, and a guarantee of lifetime employment.
Blocking the terminal, which feeds oil through a pipeline to four major refineries, the strike has left dozens of tankers and cargo vessels idling in the Mediterranean.
The ships can be seen dotted around the scenic port of Marseille, known for its seedy backstreets where locals drink pastis and play cards in cafes.
Traffic crawled on a nearby coast road last week as drivers craned to catch sight of the ships or stopped to take photos.
Drivers in this city of 850,000 were queuing for fuel long before shortages hit the rest of the country this week as refinery workers walked out in protest at a government plan to raise the retirement age by two years.
Marseille residents also are dealing with an unrelated garbage collectors’ strike that has clogged much of Marseille with stinking refuse. A similar strike last year saw 7,000 metric tones of garbage pile up before it broke.
Ryanair’s threat to close its Marseille base followed a dispute with French authorities over how its workers are paid.