Labour anger mounts as France faces job losses

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Faced with job losses and less than satisfying redundancy packages, employees are taking matters into their own hands.

PARIS – A managing director taken hostage, a foreign manufacturer under fire, job losses at the country's most profitable firm; the global crisis has triggered a new round of industrial tension in France.

Next week, trade unions will stage a nationwide one-day general strike to protest falling living standards and growing job losses, but localised trouble has already erupted across a country known for its unruly labour relations.

On Friday, workers at Sony France's videotape factory in the southwestern town of Pontonx-sur-l'Adour released their managing director after holding him hostage overnight in a bid to win a bigger redundancy package.

"I am happy to be free and to see the light of day again," Serge Foucher told reporters before joining his former captors in a minibus to set off for a meeting with state officials and union leaders in nearby Dax.

He had gone to the factory on Thursday to meet its 311 workers for the last time before it is due to close on 17 April.

But his employees, who say their pay-off is less generous than that offered at other French plants that have been closed by the Japanese electronics giant, barricaded the entry to the site with tree trunks.

Foucher was held overnight in a meeting room, a union official told AFP.

French manufacturing has been hard hit by the world financial crisis, which began in 2008 when trouble in the US and British mortgage markets triggered a credit crunch that has sapped consumer confidence.

Unemployment has surged past eight percent and will climb further during the year as France and its eurozone neighbours sink into a recession that appears likely to last well into 2010.

Union leaders, who met this week with employers and the state unemployment insurance agency, said afterwards that between 375,000 and 454,000 more workers will be laid off this year, boosting unemployment to more than 2.5 million.

President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 on a right-wing platform to create more jobs, boost household incomes, liberalise labour laws and shrink the civil service.

Now, like his new US counterpart President Barack Obama and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he has fallen back on an emergency multi-billion-euro economic stimulus package.

Nevertheless, factory closures continue and anger is rising.

The biggest single closure announced so far is that of German tyre giant Continental's plant in Clairoix, north of Paris, where 1,210 workers learned unexpectedly on Wednesday that they are to lose their jobs.

Continental's decision angered Sarkozy's government - which has given more than EUR 12 billion in loans to protect France's auto sector - and he has complained to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I'm shocked at the way the situation developed," Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said Friday, adding that France had been in talks with Continental on softening the blow and had been blind-sided by the announcement.

Continental's workers have threatened to launch a legal challenge to the closure, which both the unions and government spokesman Luc Chatel have called a "betrayal" of a workforce that had already agreed to work longer hours.

"We must let the judicial system do its work and take the appropriate decisions," Lagarde said.

Another round of cuts that this week triggered the fury of both labour and government and labour were those at France's largest firm, energy giant Total, which is to lose 555 posts through voluntary redundancies and retirements.

Here the number of departures was relatively small compared to the size of the firm, but the news was received with bitterness less than one month after Total announced the biggest annual profit in French corporate history.

AFP / Expatica

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