Masked commandos swooped from helicopters onto a ferry hijacked by striking sailors and retook the vessel near Corsica on Wednesday, as the French government grappled with widening protests against the planned privatization of a state ferry company.
The raid took place about 8:30 a.m. aboard the Pascal Paoli, which was commandeered in Marseille on Tuesday by about 50 crew members, who sailed it within sight of the Corsican port of Bastia.
The sailors belong to a union allied with Corsica’s powerful nationalist movement, which has waged a long and often violent separatist struggle against France. There were no passengers aboard, but the boat’s officers were allegedly held against their will.
Five helicopters hovered over the vessel as commandos from a SWAT team of the French military police slid down ropes to the deck. The police quickly rounded up and handcuffed the mutineers, and no injuries resulted. The vessel later arrived in the city of Toulon in southern France, and four of the sailors were expected to face mutiny charges, news reports said.
Meanwhile, violent street clashes continued in Marseille and Bastia, where sailors and dockworkers had shut down the ports to protest the planned privatization, which could eliminate about 400 jobs among the 2,400 at state-owned National Corsica-Mediterranean Co.
The conflict at sea and on land was a new challenge to the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a presidential hopeful who is navigating in stormy political waters almost four months after taking office. De Villepin’s plan to revive the popularity of a beleaguered center-right government is focused on reducing unemployment and spurring economic growth. He has cultivated an image as a defender of the working class and of French interests against foreign corporations, speaking out against planned job cuts by Hewlett-Packard in France.
The Corsica showdown is therefore delicate for De Villepin. The owner of Butler Capital Partners, the company set to acquire the ferry line, is a French American businessman described in French news reports as a friend of the prime minister and other powerful officials.
Moreover, the clash has escalated as France’s unions are gearing up for the customary fall season of strikes and marches. This year, labor leaders are determined to block austerity moves by a government conscious of the approaching campaign for the 2007 presidential election and weakened by electoral setbacks and infighting.
On Wednesday, leaders of unions and the political opposition assailed the government’s handling of the planned privatization and the use of heavily armed, helicopter-borne military units on the strikers.
“This is a disproportionate operation by the police and the French colonial army against unarmed workers,” said Jean-Guy Talamoni, a leader of a Corsican independence movement.
Despite their anti-French rhetoric, Corsican nationalists lobby hard for government programs and jobs, which keep a major state presence on the island.
The leader of the Socialists, the main opposition party, said the government was the “main culprit” in the conflict because it had “pushed the workers to the limit.”
“The government’s image has been degraded by this,” Socialist leader Francois Hollande said.
The top law enforcement official in Corsica said authorities had sent in the elite commando unit of the military police because their skill would prevent casualties.
“This operation was planned so there would be the least possible violence, and there was no incident,” said Pierre-Rene Lemas, the prefect of the island.
Though Cabinet ministers praised the show of force against what they called an act of piracy, the government also showed signs of backing down. Officials said they would reconsider the total privatization and try to ensure that the government remained a minority partner in the ferry company.
National Corsica-Mediterranean operates ferry lines to destinations including Marseille and Algiers. It has steadily lost money in recent years.