Fight against job cuts heats up in France
French workers have never taken the threat of redundancy sitting down: but with job losses coming thick and fast in Paris, they are hitting back with increasingly aggressive tactics.Updated: Aug 09, 2009, 09:49 IST
French workers have never taken the threat of redundancy sitting down: but with job losses coming thick and fast in Paris, they are hitting back with increasingly aggressive tactics.
To the conventional strikes and picket lines they have added a spate of "bossnappings" -- in which executives find themselves prisoners of the workers they employed -- and even threats to blow up their place of work.
Violent industrial disputes are not unique to France: at the other end of the world, Japan and South Korea are regularly shaken with this kind of social unrest.
Union activists in South Korea only agreed to end their occupation of the Ssangyong Motor plant on Thursday, after a 77-day sit-in, punctuated with fierce clashes with police.
In the European Union however, this kind of violence seems far less common.
But this spring French workers facing redundancy launched a first wave of bossnappings, detaining key executives in their offices as a means of strengthening their negotiating positions.
Those hit in the first wave included multinationals such as Sony and Caterpillar. Towards the end of July, it was the turn of French giant Michelin.
But not all bosses are standing for the new hardball tactics.
Auto parts makers Molex which is shutting down its factory in Villemur-sur-Tarn, near Toulouse in southwest France, said one of its US managers had been assaulted, although union officials denied this.
Executives, who accused French police of having failed to help, lodged a complaint against four workers over the incident.
Even more dramatic was the threat by workers at New Fabris, a bankrupt French car parts factory in central-eastern Chatellerault.
On July 12, activists who had already been occupying the factory for nearly a month, announced they would blow up the factory and its stock of parts unless they got a lay-off settlement from their former clients Renault and Peugeot.
They set up a ring of gas cannisters around the plant -- and the local emergency services took them seriously enough to increase the number of firefighters.
Two other French factories briefly followed suit, but in the end, on July 20, the New Fabris workers backed off from their threat once it became clear that Renault and PSA-Peugeot were not ready to pay up.
The government has had to tread a difficult path.
French Employment Minister Laurent Wauquiez may have condemned such measures as "blackmail" but the government has preferred to send in mediators rather than the riot police.
Ministers cannot ignore the growing anger in France over the sometimes massive bonuses paid to executive and stock market traders at a time when most workers are suffering.
News this week that BNP Paribas was paying out huge bonuses a year after having been bailed out by the state to the tune of 5.1 billion euros ($7.3 billion) provoked a fresh wave of anger in France.
"What a world we live in," said Juan Fernandez, a Molex worker. "They leave us for dead while the traders at BNP Paribas get millions of euros."
Union leaders at the national level, wrong-footed by the new grass-roots militancy, were conspicuously silent on the issue in July.
One of the main unions, the CGT, argued that stand-offs of this kind over how much redundancy money would be paid did not address the core problem.
But for some the real problem is the weakness of French unions.
"Union presence in the private sector is one of the weakest among industrialised countries, which also plays into the explosions of anger," said Claude-Emmanuel Triomphe, a former workplace inspector.
"The violence is, in a way, the 'weapon of the weak'," he said.
But the French elite bore their share or responsibility too, he added.
They have been unable to lead the way to a less confrontational model such as the one favoured by their Scandinavian counterparts, which stresses professional social security, he said.