Later this month French car giant PSA Peugeot Citroen is expected to announce the closure of its historic Paris plant at Aulnay-sous-Bois, spelling deep trouble for the 3,300 strong workforce and the already disadvantaged surrounding region.
When asked about the seemingly inevitable closure of their car plant workers at the threatened factory in northern Paris had one word in mind -- “disaster”. Local officials from the already deprived Seine-Saint-Denis region around the threatened PSA Peugeot Citroën factory echoed that exact sentiment.
With hundreds, if not thousands, facing the prospect of having to join lengthening queues at job centres in an area already blighted by high unemployment, it is easy to understand their choice of words.
The scale of the “disaster” will become clear in the coming days, with PSA Peugeot Citroën expected to announce further details of its cost cutting plan, which could see the loss of up to 10,000 job nationwide.
The widely held assumption is that the company, which made €588 million net profit last year, will close its landmark factory at Aulnay-sous-Bois, which was built in 1973 and currently employs 3,300 people.
The storm clouds have been gathering over the factory ever since unions found a memo from directors last year revealing a “secret plan” to close the plant. D-day is approaching with workers set to find out their fate on July 12 in what will be a highly charged meeting with bosses. The anxiety has already started to take its toll.
“They are losing their minds”
“There are guys working here who are losing their minds,” 30-year-old plant worker Kaddouri Jawad told France 24.
“They have to take medication to be able to sleep at night because they are so worried about losing their homes and their livelihoods if the factory closes. Nobody jokes anymore, no one is smiling and everyone is scared,” said the father of two.
Unions say thousands of other staff in businesses connected to the plant will also be affected, not to mention the families of those workers who will be out of a job or forced to move to a different PSA Peugeot Citroën plant in France.
PSA chiefs have tried to allay fears by insisting that executive chairman Philippe Varin’s “secret plan” to close the Aulnay plant was only “an outline proposal which is now more than a year old.”
But unions are not falling for it. For them, the plan was simply put on ice for 12 months while France chose its new president and government. Now, the writing is well and truly on the wall.
“Fight to the end”
Workers at the Aulnay plant, however, have refused to throw in the towel.
“We will not give up and we will fight to the very end. We still have hope,” 32-year-old father of three, Farid Mouedin told FRANCE 24. “We still have options and will try everything we can.”
The seven trade unions representing the workforce at Aulnay have been leading the fight and have vowed to take any action necessary to save the plant.
“We have to unite together, all of us and fight to the last possible moment,”48-year-old Patrice Zahn, a rep from the CGT union told FRANCE 24.
“Everyone is convinced they are going to close it, so there is a lot of anger around the place. It will be a disaster for us and the region. For those who have worked here for years, they won’t find another job in this current climate, not around here anyway,” said Zahn, who has 17 years of service behind him.
Peugeot in difficulty
If PSA bosses are facing rising anger from their anxious workforce on one side, they are also under pressure because of their declining share in France’s stumbling automobile industry.
According to the latest figures from France’s car manufacturing association CCFA, PSA Peugeot Citroën, the country’s biggest and most symbolic car maker, suffered a 10 percent drop in new vehicle registrations in June 2012.
The outlook looks unlikely to get any brighter for PSA, with the head of the CCFA, Patrick Blain, predicting an 8% to 12% decline in the overall French automobile market in 2012.
For PSA bosses, that gloomy outlook, the rising production costs and the fact that some of their factories, including the Aulnay plant, are reportedly functioning as much as 50% below their capacity, justifies their €1billion cost reduction plan.
But that argument holds no water for those men and women on Aulnay’s production line whose livelihoods are in jeopardy.
“There’s no real reason why they should close this plant,” CGT’s Zahn told FRANCE24. “The group has been making a lot of money for a long time. Two years ago they beat their record for sales figures. It’s just a question of them wanting to maximise their profits.”
Whole region to suffer
The precarious situation at Aulnay has sent tremors through François Hollande’s new government, with Peugeot just one of a number of companies expected to announce mass redundancies in the coming months.
France’s Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg has already written to the company's Chief Executive Varin asking him to scotch the rumours about the looming closure of the Aulnay plant.
But unions want Montebourg to go further and order Varin to suspend his plan to close the factory.
Montebourg, Hollande and co. will also know the devastating impact the loss of hundreds of jobs can have on already beleaguered community.
The unemployment rate in Aulnay stands at 16.8% -- almost 6 percentage points higher than the national average. When it comes to youth unemployment, the picture is even bleaker, hovering around 25 percent and rising to 40 percent on poorer estates.
Memories are still fresh of November 2005, when the Seine-Saint-Denis department, which includes Aulnay-sous-Bois, erupted in violence, with riots and looting lasting for weeks.
Despite politicians promising to improve the area, it still remains blighted by crime, poor housing, poverty and unemployment. The closing of the Peugeot factory will simply only add fuel to an already simmering fire, according to local officials.
“It will be a disaster,” Sherazede Homm, who works in youth development for the local authority, told FRANCE 24.
“Many young people work at the PSA factory during summer to earn some money and vital experience. It is already difficult for them so where are they going to find work if it closes down?"
“They have built special lodgings and train stations because of that factory and many workers were brought from abroad to work there. Some of them know nothing else, so how will they get a new job? The impact on everyone in the area will be enormous.”
Aulnay’s Socialist Party Mayor Gerard Segura agrees. “Closing the factory will undermine the development prospects of the whole area,” he said. “It would be a dangerous move at a time when these areas are still recovering from the social bloodletting of the 1980s.”
Not everyone in Aulnay is so pessimistic. “There’s work out there if people want it,” said Nicolas Barbosa, who is deputy manager of a garage near the PSA plant. “Even in Aulnay, there are jobs.”