Paris bargemen battle tour boat operators

In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, a battle is brewing and the lines are drawn. On one side are France's barge operators, who have blockaded the river Seine to protest the lowering of freight rates on the government-owned railroad.

On the other are the city's tour boat operators, who, in high tourist season, have been forced to give altered cruises past some decidedly ugly parts of town.

There have been attempts to break past the blockade, reprisals with water hoses, and angry words all around.

The barge operators began their protest last week to draw attention to what they say is a deliberate attempt to put them out of business. The bargemen say that the rail system charges anti-competitive freight prices which have drained away all river freight business.

``They want to eliminate us altogether,'' says lifelong bargeman Walter Cnudde.

So barricades went up on rivers around France, including a 150-barge blockade in Paris between the Eiffel Tower and the National Assembly. Commercial boats with freight were allowed through, but everyone else was blocked. In Paris, everyone else mostly means the six tour boat companies that take many of the nation's annual crop of 30 million visitors on the city's river tours.

When a cruise boat from B^ateaux-Mouches, one of the city's larger lines, first tried to run the blockade, the barge operators doused its captain with water and paint. The tourists, however, were not touched. ``Oh, no,'' says Mr. Cnudde. ``We're not unprincipled.''

But B^ateaux-Mouches owner, Jean Bruel, had some harsh words for their principles. ``This is apartheid,'' he says, insisting he should be allowed to pass with the other commercial boats. ``They are just absolute scoundrels.''

At one point last week, according to Mr. Bruel, the barge operators let six of his evening cruises upstream through the blockade and then refused to let them return. He says he had to arrange for buses to rescue some 3,300 stranded passengers. In retaliation, Bruel handcuffed himself to one of the barricade barges until his boats were permitted to return. Eventually, they were.

Now Bruel and other tour operators have settled for giving abbreviated tours, largely downstream from the blockade and for half the normal price.

Instead of gliding past stately sights like the Louvre and Notre Dame, visitors are treated to rather plainer views of the state-run radio building and Renault corporate headquarters. The bargemen have vowed to keep up the blockade until their demands are met.

Bruel says he has lost $1.2 million in revenues so far. ``I have a harvest. I'm like a farmer,'' he says. ``I'm right in the middle of harvesting tourists.''

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