French Workers Facing Layoffs Threaten Explosive Action

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Alain Jocard / AFP

An employee of the New Fabris factory in central France walks by gas bottles in front of plant on July 13, 2009

In the latest episode of Protesting French Workers Do the Darndest Things, laid-off employees at the New Fabris car-parts factory have come up with a novel method of negotiating their severance pay. Either they're given $41,000 per employee as part of the company's closure, they warn, or they'll blow the entire plant to smithereens.

"We burned these machines here a couple of days ago as proof we're ready to go all the way," New Fabris employee Daniel Thébault told French news channel i-Télé as he motioned to several heaps of charred metal outside the main building. "We're not going to simply be discarded like worthless objects."

Worthless is precisely what the entire New Fabris plant will be become, warn the firm's 336 former employees, if their demands aren't met by July 31. Dozens of gas canisters have been strung around the factory in the central town of Châtellerault, and fears are rising that, with nothing to lose, the thwarted workers might actually explode them. "If we don't get what we're asking for, there will be nothing left of the factory for them to recover," say Guy Eyermann, a New Fabris staffer and delegate of the General Confederation of Labor union.

A full three weeks before the July 31 deadline, there's little indication that the money needed to defuse the situation will be handed over. New Fabris was ordered into liquidation by a court in April, meaning its owners are in no condition to pay up. That's why workers are demanding that the plant's two biggest clients — the makers of Renault and Peugeot cars — provide the $41,000 for each job being eliminated. Not surprisingly, officials at both those groups say they aren't going to pony up the total $14 million that would cost — especially since the machinery and auto parts at the plant are scarcely worth $2.8 million.

On July 20 a delegation of New Fabris staffers will go to Paris and meet with French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, who Eyermann says will be asked "to put pressure on [Peugeot maker] PSA and Renault." With both companies having received most of the $8 billion in state aid the government distributed to French automotive groups to weather the recession, Eyermann argues they should now help out industry workers who are losing jobs to the slowdown.

Though French government officials have shown a willingness to placate — and pay off — rambunctious protesters in the past, they may think twice about bending to the threats of blowing New Fabris sky-high. That violent ultimatum is only the most recent in a series of escalating acts of intimidation by French workers facing layoffs. Last April, French fishermen furious over the effect European Union fish quotas were having on their bottom line blocked traffic in and out of North Atlantic ports for two days until they were promised state aid. Recently, France has witnessed a series of so-called bossnappings, in which CEOs of firms are held hostage by employees until job-elimination numbers are reduced or severance payments increased.

Over the past two decades, farmers and fishermen have repeatedly staged violent action to denounce falling revenues — including several incidents in which French livestock farmers burned truckloads of live sheep coming in from Britain. Peeved farmers in the provinces have also repeatedly dumped improbable volumes of animal merde in front of state buildings, and in 2000, environmental catastrophe was narrowly averted when industrial workers angry about a plant closure in northern France dumped sulphuric acid into a drainage system that feeds a major river. Not to be outdone, grape growers in southern France have even resorted to "wine terrorism."

Guy Groux, a specialist in French social and labor conflict for the National Center of Scientific Research, notes that while that kind of activity would bring about legal punishment and public denunciation elsewhere in the world, it's viewed with singular tolerance in France. That's due in part to lingering French admiration and respect for insurrectional and revolutionary movements, and a national inclination toward stroppiness. "French history is filled with examples of rebellion and insurrection sparked by injustice that, like the Revolution itself, involved excesses people tend to minimize as they approve the wider cause involved," notes Groux. "There are social, cultural, historical, even nostalgic reasons for France's acceptance of behavior that other nations find abnormal — not to mention very real lingering French suspicions of capitalism and globalization."

Yet with New Fabris employees threatening violence of an unprecedented kind, the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy may want to consider the consequences of giving in to demands this time. The French may love to see truly righteous indignation displayed, but feeding that kind of fury could lead to bigger explosions than anyone bargained for.