Port privatization hasn’t been easy in France. Frequent strikes, coupled with the global recession, were the sort of one-two punch that could have knocked down many ports for years.
Through it all, however, the Port of Le Havre has pressed on, and by any standard had a comparatively strong 2009. The country’s largest port — it handles some 60 percent of France’s containerized imports and exports — saw traffic fall just 9 percent last year, not bad compared to losses of two to three times as much at some of its larger competitors to the north.
|Like other French ports, Le Havre’s terminals are being transferred from the state-owned port authority to private terminal operators and stevedoring companies. Private operators already have purchased the port’s six container and two breakbulk terminals and all the ship-to shore cranes and mobile harbor cranes from the state.
The only part of reform remaining — the stickiest part, at that — is for 230 crane operators and 100 maintenance workers to switch from working for the state to working for the private companies. This has been the source of near-monthly labor strikes plaguing the port for much of the last two years.
“Things are changing in Le Havre, even in a period of crisis, even during port reform,” said Herve Cornede, the port’s commercial director. He said the port is working on the details of the workers’ transfer, the last piece of the privatization process, which should be complete by September.
Crane operators last walked out in January, when dockworkers at all French ports protested the port reform in a 24-hour strike, even though their unions, the CGT and the National Federation of Ports et Docks, had signed an agreement in October agreeing to the reform.
The strikes continued after the agreement was signed because the two-year time period in which port reform must be completed “is quick to do this size of reform, to change the way we do business,” Cornede said. But he said the reform, which will turn Le Havre into a landlord port like other competing ports in northern Europe, “will give us an advantage for the future.”
The privatization of Le Havre’s facilities has been smoother than at other French ports because many of the new container terminals being built as part of its ambitious Port 2000 expansion project were already in private hands. As part of the expansion plan, new container terminals were built or are being built along 2.7 miles of reclaimed land in the mouth of the River Seine. The four terminals that opened in the past three years already have doubled capacity to 4 million TEUs from pre-expansion levels.
The four facilities were built with investment from DP World in a joint venture with CMA CGM, from APM Terminals in a joint venture with local stevedoring company GM, and from Mediterranean Shipping Co. in a joint venture with terminal operator Terminaux de Normandie, Cornede said. The fourth terminal was built by CNMP, a multi-user terminal operator.
When complete in 2012, the Port 2000 project will give Le Havre eight container terminals with annual capacity of 6 million TEUs. The port handled just more than 2.2 million TEUs last year, down from almost 2.5 million a year earlier. By comparison, Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, handled nearly 10 million TEUs last year, down 9 percent from 2008.
Now that the port authority no longer has to worry about operating its ocean terminals, it is concentrating on marketing the port’s new facilities and on investing in inland transportation. To attract more carriers, the port froze the fees it collects from terminal operators in 2010 at 2009 levels and cut the fees it charges on transshipment by 70 percent.
The port’s two most important trade lanes are the trans-Atlantic trade with North America, which was flat to down during the recession, and the Asia-Europe trade, especially with China. The port, which is already served by most of the major carriers, landed a new call last October by United Arab Shipping in its AEC2 Asia-Europe Container Service from China to North Europe.
Le Havre is concentrating on improving its network of highway, rail and water transport with its inland markets in France and northern Europe. It will have to, because other ports are targeting those markets as areas of expansion. The Belgian port of Antwerp in March said it is positioning itself as a maritime gateway for France by improving its road, rail and barge connections with it.
Le Havre has an ace up it sleeve. “The cherry on the cake is that we are investing in a big multimodal terminal for rail and water transport that will be finished by 2012,” Cornede said. “So you can carry all the cargo from all the terminals to the multiterminal for rail and barge transport.” The port also is developing its barge links with the river ports of Paris and Rouen and working more closely with them to attract cargo.
Contact Peter T. Leach at email@example.com.