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French workers vent their anger

Officials in France are looking increasingly overwhelmed by worker protests that have engulfed the country in recent weeks as the nation faces its worst economic outlook in 30 years.
Image: Employees of Continental tyre factory look at the guard post
Employees of a Continental auto-parts factory in Clairoix, France, look at the damage caused Tuesday by angry workers.Benoit Tessier / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

French automotive workers hurled floor lamps at windows and stomped on furniture as despair over the economic downturn took a violent turn.

"Unacceptable," government officials said Wednesday of the rampage by workers at a factory north of Paris and nearby regional government offices. Officials are looking increasingly overwhelmed by protests that have engulfed France in recent weeks as the nation faces its worst economic outlook in 30 years.

Workers have locked up their bosses. They have blocked production of Toyota Yaris cars and deliveries to key oil terminals. They've burned tires at protests and marched on the capital to ask for government help.

Most of the acts have been nonviolent. But on Tuesday, workers from a factory run by German auto parts maker Continental AG exploded in anger after a court north of Paris refused to forbid the company from shutting down the site next year.

They smashed windows at the factory in Clairoix and at a regional administrative office in nearby Compiegne, pulling up lamps and crushing desks and cabinets. While strikes and protests are common among French workers, this kind of outburst is rare.

"In the industrial sector, labor relations have always been more conflictual than in other social segments," said Laurent Willemez, sociologist at the University of Poitiers. And since industry is particularly hard hit by the current crisis, the conflicts are more intense than elsewhere, he said.

Worker frustration explodes
He joined many in saying the economic downturn has merely set alight a tinderbox of worker frustrations that had been smoldering for years. Even before the crisis, French workers had seen jobs sent overseas and social protections diminish as governments sought to make the economy more flexible and competitive.

France's economy hasn't been hit as hard as some by recession — Prime Minister Francois Fillon predicted a 2.5 percent contraction this year — but French workers have been more vocal about protesting than most in Europe. While France's union membership rate is low, labor unions wield significant influence on government policy and company management in certain sectors, and non-union workers often join strikes and other protests.

Continental's case has drawn nationwide attention. Citing the steep drop in demand in the automobile sector, Continental announced in March plans to shutter the factory in Clairoix, north of Paris, which employs 1,120.

On Wednesday, factory management suspended production because of the damage wrought by protesters. Workers agreed to hold government-mediated talks with management April 29 over conditions of the factory's closure.

The incident prompted political hand-wringing on the left and right.

The prime minister criticized what he called a small minority of "very violent" workers who are hijacking peaceful union mediation efforts.

'This needs to stop'
Budget Minister Eric Woerth called the sacking of the regional administration offices "unacceptable."

"To go ransack the state's property when the state is the only recourse for all of these employees, it's rather paradoxical," he said. "This needs to stop."

On the left, Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said the root of the violence was "inadmissible behavior by employers."

Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet said workers "are obliged to use means that they themselves regret." She said, "When you are in front of a wall, it is despair that speaks out."

Signs of a hardening were appearing on the employers' side as well.

The French subsidiary of American automotive company Molex filed a lawsuit for sequestration after two bosses were held for two days by angry workers — a departure from past "bossnapping" cases, when managers and workers agreed to keep the affair in-house and avoid going to court.

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