They're the unseen victims of France's strikes: up to 1,600 foreign sailors trapped in 80 ships off the southern coast of Marseille, most of them unable to get to the shore that is so tantalizingly close.
The sailors from around the globe have been caught in a power struggle between French labor unions and port authorities that has virtually shut down the country's largest oil terminals _ one facet of the French strikes that are costing the national economy up to euro400 million a day.
The sailors still have plenty of work to do, though their ships aren't going anywhere. And it's not unusual for them to stay on board for months on end without setting foot on land. But their odd situation illustrates how a quintessentially French conflict is disrupting the lives of sailors from every corner of the world.
The port strike, like France's transport and oil refinery strikes, is partly a protest over the conservative government's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. But it's also more complex than the strikes that have affected transportation, schools and oil refineries.
It started when Marseille dockers and other port workers, led by the hard-line, Communist-backed CGT union, went on strike Sept. 29 in a dispute over a planned reform of the port's operations. Since then, the number of ships _ mainly oil tankers but also bulk goods freighters and container ships _ that have been forced to drop anchor outside the port has steadily risen.
"The situation in Marseille is the worst I've seen," said Gilles Bellafronte, an official charged with safely directing the traffic of ships in and out of Marseille's port.
James Driver, director of the Seafarers Center in Port de Bouc west of Marseille, says only a few sailors have been able to get off board because there aren't enough available shuttles to take them to land.
That means many of the sailors are cut off from contact with their family if their boats don't have Internet or affordable phones.
Weather conditions have been too rough in recent days for many to get to land, but on Wednesday about 10 Filipino seafarers made it to the center for a few hours to call their families _ something it is far cheaper to do from land lines than it is via satellite telephones aboard their ships.
"Worry for the family of a seafarer is a fairly permanent state of affairs _ it's not a safe job, because of the weather and the accidents that can happen on the ship related to the cargo, so not being able to hear their voice is an added worry," Driver said. He said: "Nobody gives (seafarers) credit for the role they play in the global economy."
While most of France's protests and strikes are running out of steam now that the government's plan to raise the retirement age has been approved by parliament, the port workers' strike shows no sign of abating.
It also has spread to France's second-largest oil port at Le Havre, which supplies 40 percent of France's fuel needs. The oil port at Donges, near the western port of Nantes, also is striking.
A local business lobby representing companies that depend on the Marseille port has set up an association _ "Hands Off My Port" _ to sound an alarm over the strike's impact. It estimates that for the oil industry alone, the strike had cost euro34 million ($47 million) at its last accounting on Oct. 18.
Small businesses established in and around Marseille have lost more than euro40 million, while restaurants, hotels and other city center businesses put their losses at euro4 million, which they blame on fewer tourists as cruise ships avoid the port.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde this week estimated losses from all the strikes combined at between euro200 and euro400 million a day.
Despite the tumult in Marseille, life for the sailors stuck on the blocked ships goes on more or less as usual, though their boats are immobile.
"It's the same life on board, it's not boring, there's always work to do," such as cooking, cleaning, painting and maintaining the motors and other equipment, Bellafronte said. "That's life at sea."
Rev. Arnaud de Boissieu, a Roman Catholic priest in Marseille who works with sailors, said he hasn't been able to go aboard the stranded ships because they are out to sea, not docked. But he imagines their predicament seems worse to outsiders than it does to sailors used to being cooped up on board.
"The only frustration for them may be being so close to land without being able to get there," he said.
Associated Press writer Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.