Transportation & Logistics Analysis

France-Maghreb ro-ro services in short supply

November 30 2023

Services between France and the Maghreb for trailers and full haulage rigs are relatively limited in number by comparison with those serving the ports of neighbouring European countries.

The number of ro-ro services operating betweeen France and the three Maghreb countries - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - is relatively low, compared to those serving France's Mediterranean neighbours, Italy and Spain. One of the explanations for this, according to one observer, is that France is well served by container lines. Forwarders are said to prefer transporting goods by container rather than on accompanied or unaccompanied trailers.

Ro-ro transport nevertheless offers one advantage. Most services between southern France and North Africa use dual-purpose ro-pax vessels. During holiday periods, these ships are widely used by individual passengers looking to get to North Africa. To meet this summer season demand, operators have set up suitable services.

Because there is also demand for freight transport, however, shipping companies operating between France and the Maghreb keep their services going outside the holiday season for the transportation of trailers. At the moment, two French ports offer regular freight services to the three Maghreb countries - Marseilles and Sete. These two Mediterranean ports complement each other to a large degree. Different shipping companies serve each of them. Sete currently concentrates on services to Morocco, while Marseilles offers a wider range of services to all three Maghreb countries. The other French Mediterranean ports - Toulon, Nice and Port Vendres - do not offer regular services, however.

Sete - a link between Turkey and Morocco

Sete developed its ro-ro traffic after the arrival of UN Ro-Ro. This shipping company offers a regular service between the Turkish port of Yalova and Sete for unaccompanied trailers. The growth of this activity has incited other shipping companies to call at Sete as a means of providing an onward link from southern France to North Africa. Two shipping companies offer services to Morocco - Italy's GNV (Grandi Navi Veloci), which was recently taken over by MSC, and Spain's Balearia group.

  • GNV

GNV offers services to Tangiers and Nador. There are twice-weekly sailings to Tangiers during the high season (from June to September). Outside this period, GNV offers one weekly round trip between Sete and Tangiers. The service is a direct one, although an intermediate call is sometimes made in the Spanish port of Barcelona.

Between Sete and Nador, which lies east of Tangiers in Rif Oriental, GNV offers four round trips weekly in the high season. During the rest of the year, the company offers one round trip every eight days.

Apart from trucks bound from Europe to Morocco, GNV also offers a service for trailers arriving from Turkey on the UN Ro-Ro service of DFDS. The Danish operator offers a weekly round trip between Yalova and Sete and, some of the trailers, which are bound for the Moroccan market, are transhipped on to the French port's services to Tangiers and Nador.

GNV has a relatively small market share in France. A large part of its trade with the Maghreb has been developed at different Italian ports offering services to Tunisia. To complete its presence in this trade, the company also offers services between Barcelona and Morocco.

Although it already offers services to Morocco from France, Spain and Italy, the group makes no secret of its wish to break into the Algerian market. "We are paying close attention to the Algerian market," the company's chief executive said when the company celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2022. "We are in direct contact with the authorities and business operators there. Setting up in Algeria is not easy, however. We want to take our time and make sure the lines we open are successful." He did not reveal which European port the company would use to serve Algeria, although the rumour is that it would like it to be Barcelona.

  • Baléaria 

The Spanish shipping company, which specialises in services to the Balearic Islands, has had a presence in Sete for a number of years and operates a weekly service between Sete and Nador.

Marseilles - the traditional gateway to the Maghreb

Marseille remains the traditional gateway for services to the Maghreb. France's number one port in terms of throughput by volume, it has maintained ro-ro links with all three North African countries.

Compared to Sete, Marseilles has the particularity of being able to offer con-ro services able to transport both containers and trailers. These services are used solely for unaccompanied trailers, since the ships concerned do not have cabins for drivers. At the moment, these ships are mainly used for the transportation of new and second-hand vehicles. 

1/ The con-ro services 

  • CMA CGM 

The French shipping company inherited its con-ro ships when it took over Delom as part of its acquisition of Comanav in 1999. Both companies provided services to and from North Africa. Today, CMA CGM offers several services between Marseilles and the Maghreb. Med RoRo provides a weekly service between Marseilles, Barcelona and Casablanca, using con-ro ships with 1,280 lane metres of ro-ro capacity and 640 TEU of container space. Med RoRo Algeria offers a weekly service between Marseilles, Skikda, Algiers and Mostaganem, using ships of the same capacity, while Med RoRo Tunisia offers three round trips weekly between Marseilles and Tunis with ships able to carry up to 156 trailers.

  • Messina

The Italian shipping company offers one round trip between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, using con-ro ships which call at Misrata in Libya before going on to Marseilles and Barcelona.

  • DFDS

This company, which is best known for its services in northern Europe, makes no secret of its plans to expand in southern Europe. It operates between Sete and Turkey and offers a weekly service between Marseilles and Tunis using a con-ro ship able to transport 156 trailers and 900 TEU.

  • Grimaldi

The Italian group is little present un the unaccompanied trailer market in France. The ship it operates between Marseilles and Casablanca offers 2,500 lane metres for ro-ro traffic and can carry containers up to 900 TEU. The service is mainly used for rolling plant rather than trailers, however. On its way from Marseilles and Morocco, it calls at Italy's Ligurian Sea ports, however, and thus has a longer transit time than its competitors. The service is mainly used to provide a con-ro link between the Mediterranean and West Africa.

  • Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation

Along the same lines as the preceding services, Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation offers three 24-hour round trips weekly between Marseilles and Tunis. It uses ships offering 3,700 lane metres of ro-ro capacity or 180 trailers. The service is mainly for unaccompanied trailers.

  • Neptune Lines

This company reactivated a line for the transportation of motor vehicles between Marseilles and Morocco some years ago. Its ship calls at Djen Djen in Algeria and Tangiers in Morocco. On its return, it calls at the Spanish ports of Valencia and Barcelona before returning to Marseilles via Sete, although it calls at the latter port only as demand requires. Given the congestion at European ro-ro terminals, however, and to fill up its ships, Neptune Lines makes available part of its hold space for unaccompanied trailers.

2/ Ro-Pax services

Ro-pax services differ from other services in that they are able to accommodate truck drivers. Three companies offer services of this type from Marseilles - Corsica Linea, Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation and Algérie Ferries.

  • Corsica Linea

Corsica Linea has taken the place of the SNCM. Its ships have been repainted red and its management team has been changed but its services remain pretty well the same. The company, which specialises in providing services to the island of Corsica, has always offered sailings to the Maghreb as well. It uses ferry-type vessels which can load accompanied and unaccompanied trailers. It offers a weekly round trip to Tunisia outside the holiday period but offers a twice-weekly service in the summer. Its ships offer up to 1,000 lane metres. The company also offers weekly round trips to Algeria throughout the year. In the summer, however, it extends its service network to take in services to Bejaia and Skikda. Overall, it offers three round trips weekly to Algeria during the summer.

  • La Méridionale

This Marseilles-based company has been making round trips to Tangiers for the last three years at a rhythm of three sailings every fortnight. Its ro-pax vessel takes 39 hours to reach Tangiers and offers 2,460 lane metres or space for 170 trailers. Initially, the company launched the service to export new vehicles built in Morocco by Renault and Stellantis. Given the range of services to France offered by the pure car and truck carriers, however, La Meridionale sought to reposition its services, offered dedicated services for accompanied and unaccompanied trailers.

  • Algérie Ferries

The Algerian ferry company, which is owned by Entreprise Nationale Maritime de Transport de Voyageurs (ENMTV), has set up its own service network to cater for the needs of Algerians living in Europe. Its ships are essentially designed to carry passengers but, to enable it to function all year round, it also carries freight vehicles and drivers. The company's four ships can load 200 trailers. The space allocated to freight and passenger vehicles varies. In winter, the company operates only two ships and the two others are put into maintenance. The company offers twice-weekly sailings to Algiers with one ship, while the other offers a service between Marseilles, Algiers, Oran, Bejaia and Skikda three or our times a month, depending on the destination concerned.

  • Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation

As well as its con-ro services, CTN offers sailings between Marseilles and Tunis using ferry-type vessels. Round trips are made weekly out of season and three times weekly during the summer. The vessel used by the company can accommodate 2,000 passengers and 1,100 private vehicles during the summer and up to 150 rigs with drivers during the rest of the year.

The absentees

Some major operators are absent from the France-Maghreb market. Shipping companies like Grimaldi offer no dedicated trailer services, even though the Naples-based group aims to be the short-sea shipping industry leader in the Mediterranean. It offers services from Spain and Italy to North Africa but they do not call at French ports. Grimaldi's management offers no explanation for this, except to say that there is a lot of competition in France, which exerts downward pressure on freight rates which are already low.

Also absent from the France-Maghreb ro-ro trade are France's other Mediterranean ports. Toulon, Nice and Port Vendres offer no regular services to the Maghreb countries. Port Vendres concentrates on its African fruit and vegetable import trade, for which it uses conventional reefer vessels. This strategy has been confirmed by the recent award of the operating concession for the port to Compagnie Fruitiere.

Projects under study

There have been some plans to set up services to the Maghreb from France's Atlantic ports. In the 2000s, the port of Lorient in Brittany started a service to Morocco but quickly ran into headwinds. The shipping company concerned failed to respect French employment legislation and quickly threw in the towel.

Studies were carried out into the possibility of extending the line between the River Loire port of Montoir and the Spanish port of Vigo in Galicia to North Africa. The line is mainly used to transport motor vehicles from Spain to the French market. On its return leg, it loads trailers carrying slate e from Angers or other merchandise from the Loire region. There was a suggestion that the line could be extended to bring new cars from Tangiers but, so far, this has not materialised.

Meanwhile, the ports of Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle are looking for alternatives to CMA CGM's west coast container feeder service, which is struggling to make headway. In an attempt to attract new shippers, they are considering starting a service to North Africa and would like to see either an all-container line or a con-ro service able to take unaccompanied trailers to Morocco.

Finally, during the summer 2023, Corsica Linea operated several crossings between Sete and Algeria, mainly for the passenger market. Other trials are planned in the coming months, however, with the idea of starting a regular all-year service for both passengers and freight.

Ro-ro traffic at French ports fell 0.9% in 2022 to 69.9 million tonnes. Traffic at the eastern Channel-North Sea coast ports, which accounts for 80% of all French ro-ro traffic, fell for the fifth consecutive year. The Corsican ports saw their ro-ro traffic increase 5.5%, even if their traffic total remained 17.8% behind its 2019 level. At the other Mediterranean ports, ro-ro traffic increased 16.4% year on year in 2022, exceeding its 2019 level by 12.4%, according to the annual freight traffic report published by the French transport ministry.

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Graduated in law, Herve Deiss joined the transport, logistic and shipping press more than 20 years ago. From over these years, he has developed a specific expertise in all ports systems around the world
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