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Last Updated:  Monday, 17 March, 2003, 07:59 GMT
French strikers try toxic shock tactics
By John Laurenson

Civil servants protest in Paris in 2002
Strikes and sit-ins are commonplace in France
French factory workers faced with redundancy are resorting to increasingly desperate, sometimes violent, tactics to make their protests heard.

In March five employees of the electronics firm Daewoo were charged with setting fire to a factory.

And some employees of brandy-maker Martell in Cognac have been on hunger strike for the past two weeks in protest at planned job losses.

One of those refusing food is Gerard Faure.

Mr Faure said he was very tired, although he stopped feeling hungry long ago, and he is in good heart because the night before 1,500 people had marched through Cognac to protest against the lay-offs.

Not a bad turn out for a small town.

Attention seeking

Mr Faure knows there would not have been so many marchers, nor as much attention from the media, if this had been just an ordinary strike.

Many other French workers have already arrived at the same conclusion.

Strikes and sit-ins are commonplace in France, and occasionally the protests turn violent.

Workers at the Cellatex textile factory in the Ardennes caused a small chemical explosion in July 2000 and threatened to blow up the plant if they did not get more redundancy money.

They also poured 5,000 litres of sulphuric acid into a stream.

Soon afterwards the firm paid more than $13,000 of extra cash to each laid-off worker.

Setting precedents

Lawyer and author Nicholas Baverez was horrified by the firm's actions.

"In France you have a real tradition of social violence coming from the farmers or the unions in the transportation system with a very high level of tolerance from the state," he said.

"The real social problems are managed by violence and not by the law or by the market."

Since Cellatex, other French workers have won similar concessions from their employers by threatening to burn down their workplace.

Earlier this year staff at the electronics manufacturer Daewoo threatened to pour toxic chemicals into a river, while workers at the aluminium maker Pechiney kidnapped their factory director.

Difficult times

But union leader Christian Larose defended the workers.

He said in a civilised society there were limits to what people should and should not do, but that those limits had to apply to bosses too.

Mr Larose said there was now a real problem with what he called delinquent company directors - bosses who disappeared without paying their employees, but who took their order books with them so they could go and exploit people elsewhere.

For them, he says, workers were like paper tissues, to be thrown away after being used.

And psychiatrist Michel Debout said the shame of losing a job could drive people to extreme measures.

He said that when someone had to leave their job after several years, it was as if their identity had gone.

This explained why so many people reacted with violence against others, the company, the environment or themselves.

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