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by Patrick Apel-Muller

’Yes, we can’

Translated Friday 14 November 2008, by Alison Billington

The main French petroleum company makes record profits, while the automobile industry, with its network of component parts manufacturers, begins layoffs and plant closures.

Everything’s fine, thanks. The economic pistons are leaking, the joints are letting go, the engines seizing up --- but black gold continues to yield an unearned income that, in the current slump, allows the petroleum company to beat its own profit records. The ups and downs of the oil market, together with the long time they take to pass on lower petroleum prices to the pump, always provide a winning strategy for the French ‘major’. Even if, during the recession which has now set in and has spread world-wide, it were substantially to reduce the price per barrel, the margins would remain comfortable. This large company doesn’t know what ‘crisis’ means.

It’s a very different story for manufacturers of motor car components. Everything is coming together and moving fast. The lowering of purchasing power in recent years, dismal prospects for employment, manufacturers’ willingness to maintain bigger margins at any cost and shareholders’ dividends (800 million Euros for those in Renault) join forces to strangle the suppliers. In much the same manner as a crack fissuring a windshield tends to spread its way along creating complicated ramifications on its way, this industry’s crisis sprawls out inexorably to reach sub-contractors. Renault, P.S.A., General Motors or Ford, after having submitted their employees to lay-offs and factory shut downs, pass on the contagion to their neighbours. Just-in-time management becomes immediate shock and instant catastrophe over which the multinationals wash their hands. Pressure on prices, cancelled orders, delocalisation of supplies…Component manufacturers’ unenviable fate becomes, in turn, a pretext for brutal – and sometimes illegal – treatment of workers. It’s been the same old story for months, well before Wall Street’s spasms. Faurecia’s been putting workers on temporary layoff for twelve months, thus leaving its workers with a hefty bill –20% in wage losses [1]!

The economic hearts of entire regions are failing, one after another, despite which the the President of the Republic continues to play his fiddle, seemingly indifferent. Even where one might instead expect him to play the role of the statesman, he who represents the principal shareholder, which is the case at Renault, he contentedly watches as the sad cortege of jobs now become redundant or, at best, offering only partial employment files past, beneath his very eyes. The return of Sarkozy’s usual policy, goes unnoticed in the flurry while "the house burns down". The motor car industry cannot be left at the mercy of the market and its excesive greed. It remains a public prerogative. "Yes, we can save Villemar’s Molex plant’’ proclaimed the banners which bedecked a whole town rallying to the cause yesterday, like an echo of Obama’s loud support. Even so, we are not condemned to impotence. The state can purchase the blocking minority at Renault to enforce a policy which revives the industry as the communists proposed. Instead of bailing out the financial markets to make new speculations viable, the government should implement measures to encourage the replacement of old, fuel-inefficient cars by giving a boost to purchasing power and credit at reduced rates. If we are to face up to the environmental risks, a real technological challenge, to put in place green technologies and industrial procedures capable of lessening these risks, must be rapidly addressed. The French network of component manufacturers can provide know-how and men capable of accommodating to a new situation, if ressources are rallied to help this ambition and if relations between principals and subcontractors are stabilised. New equipment, hybrid engines, new types of propulsion… the oil tycoon’s tremendous profits should be used as contributions to nurse the health of the planet and improve the lot of industrial workers.

"Yes, we can"… If the motor industry’s workers assess the power they possess, the television news will no longer chant the interminable litany of all those lost jobs, one by one and day after day.

Editor’s note:

[1Crise automobile: "La lutte des salariés de Renault porte l’intérêt national", Olivier Mayer
(envoyé spécial, article publié dans l’Humanité le 22 octobre 2008)

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