Angry workers at a central France foundry owned by Platinum Equity LLC have placed about 20 gas demijohns converted into “mini-bombs” at the plant set for closure, in a last-ditch attempt to get President Francois Hollande’s attention.
“Those who own our factory are tossing us out like garbage,” Didier Verrier, a 59-year-old worker at DMI Vaux, the foundry that makes auto parts for Renault SA and Man Group, said in an interview. “We tried for months to negotiate to keep our jobs. It failed. In France, if you don’t make noise or break something, you don’t get heard.” He conceded they’re unlikely to blow anything up.
Diversified Machine Inc., an auto industry manufacturer that owns the plant, belongs to Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, which bought it from the Carlyle Group. The private equity firm says it has new plans for its holdings in France and wants to close the factory. The workers, who asked U.S. President Barack Obama for help in a Feb. 19 letter to the White House, are today demanding that Hollande step in.
With the number of French jobless at a 15-year high -- leaving about 3.17 million people seeking employment -- labor unrest is turning into one of the biggest threats to the government of the Socialist president. Hollande, who promised to reverse the trend of rising joblessness by year-end, may be set to acknowledge that it’s a pledge he may not be able to keep.
He’s also about to pass new rules bringing more flexibility to the labor market that’ll make it easier to fire workers, provoking more anger and protests. Two of France’s biggest labor unions, Force Ouvriere, or FO, and Confederation Generale du Travail, or CGT, will be demonstrating today to oppose Hollande’s jobs policy.
“What we’re witnessing today are less social movements than social implosions or explosions,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls said on RMC Radio last month. He said intelligence services are monitoring workers’ actions in France. “We can try to understand what pushes these men and women to desperation, but we cannot accept that they destroy their factory tools.”
Hollande’s popularity fell again in February, leaving him the most unpopular leader since 1981, a TNS-Sofres poll showed. About two-thirds of the French and 44 percent of those who voted for him in the second and decisive round of the May election say they’re disappointed with him, according to a BVA poll in Le Parisien on March 3.
Since the May presidential ballot, companies from PSA Peugeot Citroen and Air France to Sanofi SA have unveiled plans to cut thousands of jobs, prompting dozens of protests at their factories.
The 1,173 workers of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. whose jobs are at risk, demonstrated last month with their spouses and children in their town of Amiens, in northern France. The U.S.’s largest tire-maker plans to close the plant.
A few weeks earlier, a man immolated himself in front of a state employment office in the western town of Nantes.
The number of workers getting the minimum welfare payment, known as RSA, increased by more than 13 percent last year.
Hollande says his measures, including state-sponsored youth jobs and his January labor rules agreement, are an adequate response to fight unemployment.
The government is seeking to pass in Parliament by May a labor accord between some of the nation’s unions and business leaders that will give companies the right to reduce working time and salaries when demand slows. The accord will be submitted to the cabinet tomorrow in Paris.
“We’ve been hearing that for decades: today’s job cuts are tomorrow’s new jobs, it’s rubbish,” Jean-Claude Mailly, who heads the FO union, told France Inter radio today.
“This measure will not fight unemployment or reverse the trend on the job market as he hoped, but it will increase it, it’s a no-brainer,” Bernard Thibault, who leads the CGT union said in the same interview.
The DMI worker Verrier, who’s been working at the foundry for 25 years, said Hollande’s solutions are not “the right ones” and that “while he’s losing time with lame solutions, workers are getting poorer and getting hungry. The situation will get unbearable and eventually dangerous for the country.”
The Socialist president is falling behind on nearly every economic pledge he’s made for 2013 -- from growth to shrinking the budget deficit. Still, nothing is heaping more criticism on him, even from his own supporters, than his inability to spur job creation as he promised.
France’s unemployment rate stands at 10.3 percent, the highest in 13 years. Youth employment is almost double the national rate. The European Commission forecast last week that the French economy will expand 0.1 percent this year, far short of the government’s 0.8 percent goal. The Commission said it expects France’s unemployment to rise to 10.7 percent.
Hollande will also fail to keep his pledge to cap the budget deficit at 3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the EU, which estimates it’ll be closer to 3.7 percent. France plans to revise its targets between March and April.
With growth falling short of expectations and the deficit set to be larger than predicted, Hollande is planning spending cuts and an increase in taxes next year.
Hollande, who made the promise to reverse the labor market trend this year during his New Year’s televised address, plans a new TV appearance by the end of the month, his office said.
Starting this month, he will also pay a weekly visit to France’s regions, with a first stop in the town of Dijon on March 11 and 12. To stress the importance he’s giving to the visits, Hollande plans to stay overnight in the towns he goes to.
“He’s making an effort but lacks energy,” Verrier said. “The future of our industry, of our country is in a bad way. He must act and fast.”