Closing of Peugeot factory an act of 'war', unions say

Workers at a PSA Peugeot Citroen plant just outside Paris were outraged Thursday after the company said it would close the factory as part of a plan to cut 8,000 jobs in France, with union leaders calling the move a declaration of "war".


French auto group PSA Peugeot Citroen announced on Thursday that it will slash 8,000 jobs from its domestic operations, as it strives to cut the company’s costs. While the move was hardly unexpected, workers at the company’s plant in Paris’ northern suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois – which is set to close under the plan – still took it as a blow.

“I know how serious these measures are for the people concerned, and for our entire company,” Peugeot’s chief executive Philippe Varin said on Thursday. “But a company can’t preserve jobs when it is burning 200 million euros a month in cash.”

Among other belt-tightening measures, Peugeot’s plan stipulates that its plant in Aulnay, which employs around 3,000 people, will cease production in 2014.

The factory, which opened in 1973, will be the first car plant to shut down in France for nearly two decades. Its closure has come to symbolise not only the country’s floundering automobile sector, but also the challenges ahead for President François Hollande’s government as it struggles to make good on its promise to revive industry.

‘I’ve been waiting for today for the last year’

Just hours after Peugeot announced its plans to slash jobs, crowds of men and women wearing the company’s grey canvas uniform stood outside the factory in Aulnay. Many had buttons bearing the slogan “United against PSA Aulnay’s closure” pinned onto their work clothes or union vests.

“At around 8:15 am they called everyone in, department by department,” Patrick Planque, a worker at the factory in Aulnay for the past 16 years, told FRANCE 24. “They explained that they were losing more than they were earning and because of that the factory was going to close in 2014.”

Patrick Planque has worked at PSA Peugeot Citroen's plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois for 16 years. © Rachel Holman
Patrick Planque has worked at PSA Peugeot Citroen's plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois for 16 years. © Rachel Holman

Abdelkrim (who declined to give his last name) stood beside Planque near the plant’s entrance. The 51 year old began working at Aulnay more than three decades ago, when he was only 17.

“Under normal circumstances our bosses should have been the ones to [tell us about the decision], but management did it – people who had the words and the language to make us swallow the pill,” Abdelkrim said.

For many, though, Thursday’s announcement was a long time coming. Rumours that the plant would shut down began circulating in 2011 after French labour union CGT got a hold of internal documents outlining the factory’s closure.

“Things have changed a lot over the last five years. Work was consolidated and little by little jobs began disappearing,” said Mekbel Moussa, who has worked at the factory for almost 18 years. “Seeing how unsettled things were, we expected that something was going to happen. I’ve been waiting for today for the last year, if not longer.”

Declaration of ‘war’

Workers at the Aulnay factory, however, refused to take the news lying down. Following the announcement, union leaders described the company’s decision as a declaration of “war”, and plant workers halted all production for the day.

“We’re here until the very end. We’re going to bring the battle,” Moussa said. “I just bought [a house] last year. I’ve got a 19-year loan, on which I’m paying around 1,000 euros a month. I’ve got four children, two of which are twins, which means that there’s no question of my wife working.”

Under its cost-cutting plan, Peugeot has promised to find new positions for nearly half of the Aulnay plant’s workforce, primarily at the company’s factory in the town of Poissy, just west of Paris.

“Even if we go to work at Poissy, it’s an hour commute. It’s not the distance that bothers me; what bothers me is the fact that I will have to wake up at 4am to get there on time for my shift,” Moussa said. “How can you stick it out year after year working hours like that?”

Hopes of a government solution

Knowing that there is little chance that the plant at Aulnay might be saved, some workers have placed their hopes on the government to find a solution to the situation.

Mekbel Moussa (pictured left) and Desormis Sevenor (pictured right) discuss their concerns over the factory's planned closure. © Rachel Holman
Mekbel Moussa (pictured left) and Desormis Sevenor (pictured right) discuss their concerns over the factory's planned closure. © Rachel Holman

“They’re going to close the factory one way or the other,” said Desormis Sevenor, who has worked at Aulnay for the past 10 years. “All I can say is that we’re cooked.”

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault vowed on Thursday that his government would make sure Peugeot committed to helping all workers laid-off at the plant in Aulnay find new jobs, adding that the government would unveil a broader plan to support the country’s auto industry on July 25. Hollande also expressed his “extreme concern” over Peugeot’s announcement.

“We voted for this government so that they could get us out of this situation,” said Moussa. “We are still counting on [them] to help us. I still have faith.”

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