At Whirlpool plant, Le Pen's 'economic patriotism' is more than a slogan
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The Whirlpool factory in the northern French city of Amiens is set to close in 2018. FRANCE 24 spent 24 hours meeting workers at the plant that has turned into a metaphor for France’s manufacturing malaise and calls for "economic patriotism".
On Monday, March 20, as France’s five leading presidential candidates faced off in the first debate of the 2017 campaign, it wasn’t long before far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen brought up “the Whirlpool issue”.
Defending her call for “economic patriotism”, Le Pen cited the Whirlpool plant in Amiens as “the best example” of how foreign companies in France are shifting production to low-income countries, leaving French workers “high and dry”.
Ever since the US appliance giant announced in January that it was shifting plant production to Poland, Le Pen has seized on the Whirlpool closure to drive home her Eurosceptic agenda. The EU, she argues, is killing French jobs. Companies like Whirlpool find it cheaper to shift production to Poland since Polish workers earn less than their French counterparts, but as an EU member, Poland enjoys all the benefits of the tariff-free zone. This, the FN leader maintains, must stop.
It’s an argument that resounds at Whirlpool's Amiens factory, as FRANCE 24 discovered during a recent visit to what has turned into the poster plant for Le Pen’s economic platform.
12:20 pm at the Whirlpool plant parking lot, in the Montières industrial park in northern Amiens. The workers on the 1 pm-9pm afternoon shift are trickling in to replace the morning team working the 5am- 1pm shift. The faces are dark: a few weeks ago, Whirlpool announced that its last French plant would close on June 1, 2018.
"My colleagues are sad," confirms Jean-Philippe, a Whirlpool worker arriving for the afternoon shift. At 59, he will be entitled to his retirement benefits: "In a way, I got lucky,” he whispers.
"We're going to be late, I'm not going to be able to get my coffee,” a colleague rushes past him to the porch. Before joining his friend, Jean-Philippe said he would vote "Marine" [Le Pen] in the upcoming presidential election. "I’m thinking of my children, my grandchildren. We must try something new," he said, pleading for more "protectionism".
Le Pen, who has made "economic patriotism" one of her main campaign themes, wants to introduce a tax on relocations. Meanwhile the FN representative for the region has made several trips to the factory to press home the party message.
‘We want to be the last in France to suffer a relocation like this’
12.40 pm, Anne arrives to take up her post. Dressed in a fleece bearing the Whirlpool logo, Anne explains that she has been working here for the past 24 years. At 49, she is a year older than the average age of Whirlpool employees, "an age where you want to be stable” -- not looking for work -- "without any training for the past 20 years.”
Slender and petite, with her hair cut short, Anne smiles wistfully as she recounts the many sacrifices workers like her have made since 2002, when the first restructuring and redundancy plan was implemented. There have been three such redundancy plans since. Sacrifices included working Saturdays, renouncing overtime benefits and pay hikes for years. "We did everything we could to keep the plant going and we’re ending up on the streets while the company is making profits."
The Michigan-based Whirlpool Corporation is a Fortune 500 company, with an annual revenue of approximately $21 billion. In 2016, the company posted a profit of €850 million.
"You know, my eldest daughter did her internship here and when she saw what it was like to work on the assembly line, she asked me how I had been able to do that for so many years. We have to ask permission to go pee,” says the single mother of two girls. As for her youngest daughter, Anne explains that the 10-year-old has grown up quickly over the past few months. "Before, she did not really understand what unemployment was. But I can tell you now she understands it all too well.”
Anne would like to see the sale of Whirlpool products banned in France: "If you cannot make them in France, I do not see why you should sell them here. It’s logical, isn’t it?"
As for politics, Anne’s response is a resigned, “we do not expect much," before adding: "All we want is to be the last in France to suffer a relocation like this.”
A colleague passes and quips, "Tomorrow, the meeting, it will be between the town hall and the police prefecture."
The meeting in question is a demonstration timed to coincide with French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s visit to Amiens. It will provide yet another occasion to put the bleak northern city -- which was once a thriving hub in France’s northern industrial belt -- in the national spotlight.
Anne hears out the details of the planned demonstration, but she knows she will not go. "With my little 1,400 [euros] net income, I cannot afford it, even for two hours."
‘I do not vote anymore’
1.15 pm, Christophe leaves the factory. After eight hours standing through his shift, Christophe has only one desire: go home, shower and rest. He takes out his metal cigarette case and puffs on a cigarette in the car park.
"I've been working here 27 years. When I started, it was Philips, I've been doing only assembling. This is not going to be easy," he says.
What about the search for a buyer as stipulated under the 2014 Florange Law? "It would be ideal. We hope. But to say we believe it will happen is stretching it.”
This region is no stranger to plant closures. In 2014, Goodyear closed its plant in Amiens. In 2009, Continental AG closed its plant in the northern French town of Clairoix. "I saw the stories on TV. But when it happens to you, it’s a lot more complicated," notes Christophe.
In Amiens and the surrounding area, the unemployment rate is 11.9% -- two points above the national average. Amazon.com has announced that it is hiring 500 permanent staffers for its new distribution centre in Boves, near Amiens. But "they only take young people under 30", Christophe believes.
As for the upcoming French presidential election, Christophe does not want to hear about it. "I do not vote anymore," he declares. "Politicians, I hate them. I do not want them at Whirlpool: a worker earns an average of 1,500 euros in France. In Poland, it’s around 400 to 500 euros, they can hire three of them for the cost of one French worker. It’s our politicians who allow that.”
For him, the right and the left must deal with protectionism. "Unemployment cannot be reduced with all these site closures. Instead of assisting people, it would be better to help people keep their jobs.”
The only political personality he admires is journalist François Ruffin, whose award-winning documentary follows a French couple who lost their jobs after the textile factory that employed them relocated to Poland. Ruffin was born in Calais, grew up in Amiens, and his film tracks his efforts to get the couple’s employer -- one of France’s richest men, Bernard Arnault – to compensate the laid-off couple.
Ruffin is a leftist candidate for the June 2017 legislative elections and he’s popular in these parts. "I love this man, we can see that he understands what a worker is," says Christophe. Will he vote for him in the legislative elections -- particularly against the FN candidate Franck de Lapersonne? "It's too late: I did not register on the electoral rolls."
‘We are being used to make the little people weep’
It’s 2:30 pm, a union representative arrives for a meeting with the management. He does not hide his annoyance over the media coverage at the Whirlpool plant. "We see a lot of journalists coming to ask us if we will vote for [conservative candidate François] Fillon, [communist Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, Le Pen or [centrist Emmanuel] Macron. We feel like we are being used to make the little people weep,” he complains.
So far, only local representatives -- and none of the major presidential candidates -- have visited the Whirlpool site.
What about Macron, the centrist candidate who grew up in Amiens? "He’s a homeboy, but we have not seen him.”
Another union delegate says that he fears some of the workers will “break down on the production line…It will take 14 months, it's a long time," he confides, referring to the stressful negotiations period ahead.
A protest to greet the prime minister
The next day, mid-morning, a procession of cars speed past the Amiens city centre, sirens blazing: Prime Minister Cazeneuve has arrived.
The French prime minister has arrived to unveil a €220 million economic revitalization plan for Amiens. The plan includes the opening up of a new high-speed railway line, the renovation of a hospital and a subsidy for city buses.
A meeting between the prime minister’s representatives and a Whirlpool delegation is set for the end of the morning at the Amiens Town Hall.
At the same time, a few blocks away, in front of the Jules Verne Square, the Whirlpool workers event begins. There are around a hundred people mobilized "to show that we still exist". Among them is "Dédé," a 52-year-old who has worked 27 years at Whirlpool. On a piece of cardboard, Dédé has drawn a Whirlpool washing machine – except that the drum has workers being wrung out to dry.
The demonstration also features employees of Prima, a Whirlpool subcontractor. Jessica and Jean Michel have arrived with their youngest child in a stroller. Five children, one house loan, and two less wages in 2018. They are "a Prima couple”, they explain. “Looking for one job is difficult, forget two."
This article was translated from the original in French.