As you are probably aware of, if you have followed this blog from the beginning (poor you), I am interested in maritime transport, from a professional point of view. I have worked in various positions for maritime companies or suppliers and I am still currently employed by a container shipping line.
So I had quite some expectations about the much touted new French policy regarding the sea and especially ports. This has been engaged quite massively since Nicolas Sarkozy became President (although in all honesty, his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had largely began in the same direction). Anyway, last week, during a visit to Le Havre harbor, Nicolas Sarkozy made a rather long speech summarizing the efforts already engaged and defining priorities and concrete actions for the future. As you can imagine, I read it with attention.
First, I'd like to say that I never was a fan of Mister Sarkozy. I didn't vote for him in the last elections and I have no particular sympathy for him neither for his party. He is in general way too conservative for me, focusing largely on security rather than justice, business rather than people and image rather than content. However, I always decided to keep an open mind regarding specific policies, and give him the benefit of the doubt. I have to admit that I have been rather well surprised by this Le Havre speech. As a note, please remember that this policy (apart from a tangential exception) left aside anything related to the French Navy and defense in general. Such topics have been touched in other speeches and documents, unfortunately not to my liking either.
But for the port policy, I must say, Mister Sarkozy had it right. After a short descriptive of the current state of affairs (abysmal, as everyone in the field knows), the French President noted that France has a massive maritime potential, be it for trade (ports, shipping lines, shipping routes and other intermodal potential) fish resources, mineral resources and of course energy and science. He also noted that such a potential was either unexploited, poorly exploited or (in the case of fisheries) exploited in an unsustainable way. This is something that has been said by specialists and scientists for about twenty years, but I have to remind the reader that it is the absolute first time, to my knowledge, that it is admitted at such a high level in France.
So what about the solutions. Well, and that's where it becomes interesting, Mister Sarkozy went in quite some details... at least apparently. First he noted that Paris had to be better linked to Le Havre (its natural entry port) and that a TGV (high speed train) would be build for this. This annoyed me prodigiously. Of course, a TGV is a nice piece of technology. However, most of the needed traffic between Le Havre and Paris is merchandise (oil, ores and mostly containers). Adding a TGV will only make the merchandise traffic more difficult by increasing congestion on the line. But the next paragraph re-insured me a bit: Sarkozy asks indeed for a dedicated merchandise rail link too, and practically ordered RFF (the rail infrastructure company in France) to stop canceling merchandise slots already reserved for freight trains. This is a major new policy in France and could do a lot to change the way freight is moved in the country. At the moment, France relies massively on trucks for transports, which is congesting the roads, polluting the environment and economically stupid.
Nicolas Sarkozy went further on the port policy which is now largely engaged. Le Havre had just finished its negotiations on port reforms (and most French ports already did so in the past months), largely transferring the crane operations and ownership to private operators, as is done in most efficient ports around the world. This much needed privatization will hopefully help improve the disastrous competitive position of French ports. Despite their advantageous location in Europe, on the Asia route, Marseille, Le Havre and Dunkirk all together are not even reaching the level of traffic of ports like Antwerp or Hamburg (not even mentioning Rotterdam, which is a league of its own). This ridiculous situation is largely due to poor public infrastructure, a culture of social conflict and the absence of decent hinterland links to serve other countries via France. But it is also the symptom of a lack of interest in France for its ports and the maritime world in general. This seems to have changed with Jacques Chirac a bit (maybe via his personal links with CMA CGM and Perrigault) but took a new dimension with Sarkozy.
To my surprise, he even mentioned inter-modality, container traffic, train issues, port comparisons, trade routes and so on. Obviously, someone briefed him extensively and successfully on the question. I hope this is more than just words and will translate in actual policies and investments. I wouldn't hold my breath too much though. The "little Nicolas", as he is sometimes dubbed by comics, is used to big media appearances followed by very little or no realizations. But again, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Interestingly enough (and in a domain where I am much less proficient, I am afraid), he mentioned other aspects of maritime policies that are new. For the first time, he refused to blindly defend French and European fisheries and claimed that conservation and exploitation of the sea should be based on sound scientific studies and not local politics (something never done by his predecessors). This is a major switch in France and might foresee other ones... maybe even for the absurd French agricultural policy imposed upon the European Union? One can dream. Sarkozy took a similar approach towards the use of the sea for mineral and energy production. Coming from such a pro-business politician, this was a surprisingly "green" speech.
All in all, if only two of the four main proposal he discussed are actually implemented, this would be enough for me to swallow my opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy. I might not like him, but I would be glad if he at last does something where so many before him never even got informed on the topic.