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Macron govt under fire as General Electric cuts 1,000 jobs in France

Sebastien Bozon, AFP | GE's employees and union representatives protest to keep their plant in operation in front of the GE headquarter in Belfort, eastern France, on May 21, 2019.

Labour unions and opposition politicians reacted with outrage after US industrial conglomerate General Electric announced Tuesday that it would cut more than 1,000 jobs in France, mainly at its gas turbine operations in the east of the country.

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While details have not been finalised, GE’s plan calls for cutting up to 1,044 positions, mainly at its site in Belfort, eastern France, which employs nearly 4,000 people.

“The industrial cathedral of Belfort is burning and the government is stoking the flames,” said unions representing workers at the site in a joint press conference.

GE says that up to 792 positions could be cut at the Belfort gas plant, along with 252 dedicated to “support functions”. The proposed reductions are separate from 1,000 jobs GE said it cut from its power unit in the first quarter.

“More than half the number of employees in the gas activities... are going to lose their jobs,” the mayor of Belfort, Damien Meslot, and other local officials said in a statement Tuesday.

They warned of “new hardship” for the region, which has been hit hard by the decline of mining and heavy industry over the past decades. These latest cuts are part of a wave of European layoffs from GE as it tries to stem losses in its power generation business. In 2015 the company announced 6,500 job cuts across Europe, and two years later it revealed a further 12,000 cuts.

“We’re asking the government to stop this scandal, this carnage whose only goal is to move jobs out of France,” said union representative Philippe Petitcolin.

‘Symbol of a corrupted France’

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday he would fight to save jobs at the plant and “preserve Belfort’s industrial future”.

Emmanuel Macron, speaking from Brussels where he is meeting with European leaders, said his government would be “extremely vigilant” in negotiations with GE over the announced job cuts.

But those statements have not satisfied the plant’s unions or opposition politicians, who accused the government of playing a role in the job cuts.

French industrial group Alstom was Belfort’s biggest employer until 2014 when it sold its gas turbine manufacturing business to GE, which pledged to create 1,000 jobs to win backing for the deal from the French government. It was Emmanuel Macron, then just named finance minister by President François Hollande, who gave the green light to the deal, against the advice of his predecessor.

In the end, GE created just 25 new jobs at the Belfort site, and in February of this year agreed to pay €50 million into a reindustrialisation fund for falling short of the target.

“Shame on France,” said Bastien Faudot, an elected official for the Belfort area. “GE had committed to creating 1,000 jobs in France, and that has finally translated to cutting 1,050 jobs.”

Manon Aubry, just elected to the European Parliament as head of the left-populist La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) list, said that the announcement “was opportunely timed (after the European elections) given that Macron is directly responsible for this disaster”.

Aubry also pinned a share of the blame on Hugh Bailey, who served as an advisor to Macron when he was finance minister and now directs GE France. As general manager of the company’s French operations, Bailey has overseen the restructuring program that led to Tuesday’s announcement of job cuts.

Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF), called Bailey’s involvement in the deal a “symbol of a corrupted France”. Julien Auber, a parliamentarian with the right-wing Les Républicains, likewise denounced “a state lie”, adding that an “industrial jewel” had been sold off.

Government awaits ‘exemplary’ conduct from GE

GE said the job reductions were necessary to cut costs and make the company’s French operations more efficient in response to a shrinking market for power plants. The company has struggled for years with slumping demand for its gas turbines because of low oil and gas prices, and the power operations were a key factor in its massive annual loss of $22.8 billion last year.

GE said it has about 16,000 employees at 20 industrial locations in France, and the country houses GE’s headquarters for five divisions: renewable, hydro and offshore wind power generation, plus grid and power conversion units.

Agnès Pannier-Runacher, France’s secretary of state for economy and finance, said the government was awaiting “exemplary” conduct from GE and would be “very demanding” in negotiations over the job cuts.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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