Unions militate as French unemployment soars

Unions militate as French unemployment soars

It never rains but it pours in French industrial relations.

Following the news Renault is to implement almost exactly the same number of job cuts as PSA Peugeot Citroen and take the axe to around 7,500 staff - more like 8,200 if you believe certain figures - French unions are upping the ante and doing what comes naturally - taking to the streets.

Video footage from the hardline CGT union this week shows demonstrators hurling themselves at Renault's Flins factory gates until eventually the barriers buckle and the chanting hordes burst through.

Renault confirmed to just-auto from Paris the Clio and Zoe-producing Flins entrance site had been partially "destroyed," in the protest, while PSA separately said it was carrying out repairs at its Aulnay plant following damage inflicted last week.

Such an upswing in French militant activity is nothing new in a country long used to manning the barricades both figuratively and literally, but the decision to take a more physical stance is nonetheless a worrying development in a social conflict that shows every sign of escalating.

Unions and their members are understandably twitchy about an unemployment rate that has now soared beyond 3m - and is hovering at a worrying 10.5% - and while France's socialist President and ruling party have that headache to deal with they also have a vast deficit to reduce leaving very little room for manoeuvre.

How about this reported comment from Labour Minister, Michel Sapin, that France is 'totally bankrupt,' a phrase that had Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, scrambling to apparently bluster somewhat unconvincingly, 'France is a really solvent country.' 

The unions scent blood and to that extent are starting to mobilise jointly - particularly in the case of the hardline Confederation Generale du Travail - which organised the protest at Flins together with Renault unionists that saw the entrance partially destroyed.

And while mobilising the troops may be hard-wired into French unions' DNA, there's the small matter of who pays for that damage. That may well get lost in the higher philosophical arguments surrounding a Frenchman's inalienable right to vigorous protest, but shouldn't they at least foot the bill?

"I am not sure who is paying for this," a Renault spokeswoman told me rather plaintively. Obviously we are not very glad about this. It did damage, which we deplore."

Even more grist to the militant mill was provided by news the CGT had won a concession from the Paris Court of Appeal, concerning PSA's plans to slash 8,000 from the payroll.

That has really got the unions' pulses racing, but as they seek to capitalise on the judgement - that asks PSA's Faurecia Interieur Industrie division to start consultations with its Works Council on the "eventual consequences" of its restructuring - the automaker has rushed to pour cold water on their enthusiasm.

"That does not put into question the 8,000 jobs or the closure of Aulnay," a PSA spokesman told me. "We are not going to slow down the plan and the automobile divisions of the Group."

A statement from Faurecia in which PSA has a 57% stake, noted: "The Court of Appeal, in its ruling of 28 January, considers FII must put into place an information/consultation procedure with its Works Council on the eventual consequences, for itself, of PSA's restructuring plan, before implementing the reorganisation.

"As a result, Faurecia Interieur Industrie will start this consultation immediately."

Pausing for breath in the fast-moving turn of events across the English Channel, a statement from the more moderate CFDT union almost slipped under the radar.

The text - sent to just-auto - and this from the more amenable wing mind of organised French labour - lists a series of breathtaking demands that will have Renault management shaking its collective head.

Here's a snapshot: "Renault must commit itself to a manufacturing volume in France and the the CFDT demands a minimum of 800,000 vehicles for French sites, with the assurance no factory will have less than 70% capacity."

That's followed by an equally audacious: "Renault must develop the automotive sector in France more oriented towards partnership in relation to established suppliers and which favours being situated in the country.

"These measures must be taken with measurable indicators, quantitatively and qualitatively."

Three 'musts' in three paragraphs?

Renault - and PSA for that matter - are continuing marathon negotiating sessions in Paris to discuss their restructuring plans but on what basis can reasonable talks even begin with the hectoring tone of 'must' as a backdrop?

The heat is rising in France but both sides should take especial care not to pour paraffin on the flames. The example of what happened to Maruti-Suzuki's Indian plant in Manesar, when a rampaging mob left one senior manager dead and a further 100 hospitalised following huge industrial unrest, is still relatively fresh.

The demos and strikes are continuing in France, with each day seemingly bringing yet more news of a major closure and resulting job losses.

Just yesterday, Goodyear finally took the decision to axe its Amiens Nord plant with the loss of nearly 1,200 jobs, while as automakers downsize, suppliers must be nervously looking on, wondering how they are going to fill the gap.

Reports indicate January was the worst performing month in 16 years for the French market, with even one major PSA Peugeot Citroen union warning the French automaker risks bankruptcy as it continues to haemorrhage EUR7m (US$9.6m) per day.

Against this backdrop militant labour bodies are fanning the flames and stoking potentially large unrest - leading PSA head of employee relations - what a job - Denis Martin - to note today: "More than ever, we hope negotiations can be conducted in a serene atmosphere, with the objective of ensuring all employees have a job."

That's the bottom line isn't it?

Europe's in difficulty. Better to hang on to a job or go the way of Goodyear in Amiens.