COMMENT: PSA and French government pull up drawbridges as unions look on
Both sides in what increasingly looks like a long, acrimonious battle between PSA Peugeot Citroen and France's new government, have temporarily pulled up their drawbridges.
After an initial and intense flurry of activity as PSA detonated its jobs bomb that could see 8,000 posts disappear - on top of 6,000 staff cuts already announced - the closure of the Aulnay plant and the axing of 3,600 non-assembly staff - both sides have retreated to barracks take stock.
The "no comment" truce appears to have been mutually agreed - I contacted both warring factions following PSA CEO's Philippe Varin's hurried summons to Economics Redevelopment Minister, Arnaud Montebourg's office in Paris - but was met with a wall of silence.
As much as I could extract from them was this from PSA: "There has not been any declaration from the Minister or the president of the Group," while responding to feverish speculation in the French media of 'high tension" between both men, I was met with a frosty: "No-one [else] was present so it is difficult to say. The meeting took place behind closed doors - only those two present."
To have such a personal meeting between a powerful Secretary of State and the chief of one of France's most important companies, with no massed ranks of officials, ranks as fairly unusual, but it's fair to say Monsieur Montebourg looks highly likely to break his self-imposed purdah in the near future.
Just take this from comments sent to just-auto by his Ministry the day before he ordered Varin to the sumptuous elegance of the Bercy Ministry and which reveal the Economics Redevelopment boss' thinking - a thinking of enormous contrast to France's previous administration in May.
"A year ago, the unions made available an internal Peugeot document dating from August, 2010, which announced the closure of Aulnay," Montebourg said. "And nonetheless, last year the shareholder distributed EUR250m in dividends - a struggling business does not give out dividends, but they did it.
"So...we don't have an awful lot of confidence in what Peugeot management is telling us today. The unions, in a way, made the truth known well before anyone else."
It's highly unlikely Montebourg's predecessor in the UMP party would have cited the unions so heavily - indeed it has been a feature of the new government with even President Francois Hollande bringing up the issue of PSA's labour bodies in his first Bastille Day address to the nation last weekend.
That same UMP has returned fire this morning (20 July) however, questioning
the strength of the language used by the new government to take aim at PSA and its family shareholder.
This is as much a battle of political ideology as it is about jobs, car plants and issues such as European over-capacity.
In fact, nowhere this week have I seen much from either side in France discussing what is fast looming as the European automotive sector's gravest threat - vast factories producing huge amounts of vehicles that relatively few people want to buy on a Continent - this is overwhelmingly a European issue - beset by plummeting consumer confidence and terrifyingly high unemployment.
Coming back to PSA from the politicians' battlegrounds, the automaker sent just-auto a statement outlining the structure of the Peugeot family in the manufacturer following criticism this week.
"All members of the Peugeot family on the Peugeot board and on the FFP [Societe Fonciere, Financiere et de Participations], as well as family members working in the Group, live in France and pay their taxes in France," it said.
"The Peugeot family...does not hesitate to dilute its stake when the situation requires. The family has always tracked financial operations to support the Group. The Group has systematically renounced paying dividends when the health of the Group required it."
Clearly stung, the family is fighting back, but ranged against are some pretty powerful government forces.
But returning to the unions - you're never very far away from a syndicat in France - I've been speaking to some not just from PSA but other automakers too - to try and gauge the labour temperature and the overwhelming feeling I have is they are nervous.
They can see the way the wind is blowing and despite having some powerful new friends in the Elysée Palace and Assemblee Nationale in Paris, that nervousness is starting to transfer itself across all sorts of sectors as people start to ask "who's next?"
Some unions of course, have dusted off their default template and resorted to language along the lines of 'if they want war, we'll give them war,' a position not even Hollande, Montebourg and co would presumably defend.
But if that's the reality of how the language debate of this issue is shaping up, then perhaps that's just how it is. France has traditionally fielded a fairly militant collection of unions - particularly in large, former State-owned industries and perhaps the rest of us should get used to more of this linguistic skirmishing.
The more bolshie French unions might have one ally however. I spoke to Fiat's hardline FIOM labour body this week as the Italian automaker announced plans to shut its Pomigliano d'Arco plant for a further two weeks this summer in a bid to tackle disastrous domestic demand.
I mentioned the plan by PSA to cut up to 8,000 jobs in France, but FIOM was far more keen to talk about the strike it was planning in the Fiat Cassino plant.
"The perspective about this plant [Cassino] is not good," the FIOM spokesman said. "Today, we are [the] only organisation [that] has called for a strike in Cassino - only FIOM has called for a strike," a position of breathtaking insouciance against a national economic calamity.
Some of the more militant French unions and politicians might like to have a look at what's happening across the Mediterranean and wonder if what is taking place in Italy could occur in France too.
It absolutely could and PSA is perhaps only the first of a flurry of salvoes to be fired by the French automotive sector as it looks to survive.
The French unions know this don't they?
After all turkeys don't vote for Christmas - do they?