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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
Job woes blight northern France
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Valenciennes, northern France

Tractor
Unemployment and job security are key local issues
On a misty grey morning, the flat fields of northern France seem to stretch out endlessly, the skyline broken only by clumps of trees huddling together in the distance.

This is the industrial north of France around Valenciennes, just south of Lille. Or rather, the post-industrial north.

It is where coal mines once employed most of the men here, while cloth and textile factories offered work to their wives and daughters.

The last pit shut down in 1974, and one by one the spindles and bobbins of the textile mills and clothes factories have fallen silent.

But in the small town of Poix-du-Nord, the women at the ECCE factory - the last here still making expensive designer suits for well-known French names such as Kenzo and Givenchy - will not go quietly.

Once, this square white 1930s building employed 800 workers. Now there are just 147 left, and they too will lose their livelihoods soon, after delivering ECCE'S last collection made in France on 15 October.

Camaraderie

Marie-Helene Bourlard, the factory's CGT trade union representative, is helping to prepare the banners the women will carry on their protest march.

The words "Stop Delocalisation [outsourcing]" are being carefully spray-painted in red on white placards in the unionists' hut by the main factory building.

I asked the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal what she'd do for the workers about to lose their jobs here, but she didn't really answer
Marie-Helene Bourlard
Factory union official

It's a good-natured atmosphere, as the women laugh and joke together.

Most have been here all their working lives, for 20 or 30 years, building up a real camaraderie and sense of solidarity.

They club together to pay the bills if a colleague is short of cash.

"We stick together here. There are a lot of single mothers and widows - life expectancy is shorter for the men here in the north," she says, with no trace of self-pity.

Ms Bourlard knows the next protest is unlikely to save their jobs, but she hopes they will draw attention to the plight of skilled French workers across the nation.

For her, a change at the top - electing a far-left president - is the only way to stop French jobs being outsourced abroad.

"We've been to see most of the presidential candidates, and almost all of them said there was nothing they could do to introduce a law outlawing outsourcing to cheaper countries - not even those on the left," she tells me, to nods from the other women.

"There was just one candidate, on the far left, Marie-George Buffet, who supported us and promised a new law that would apply to the whole of Europe, to make everyone have a minimum wage so that it's not cheaper to hire Polish workers instead.

"We really need it because we're being crushed completely by competition from abroad.

"On a recent TV programme I asked the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal what she would do for the workers about to lose their jobs here, but she didn't really answer. She just said 'Good luck'."

Protest votes

The problem for these French workers is that while the finely-crafted suits they make cost around 110 euros (80) to make in France, production in eastern Europe will bring the cost down to just 25 euros per suit, which will then sell in shops for hundreds of euros.

For the owner of the factory it is an easy choice. But it will leave most of the women here unemployed in a region where 14% of the workforce are already jobless.

Poster of left-wing candidate Arlette Laguiller
Voters are looking to the far-left and far-right for solutions
The only other work they have been offered is as auxiliary geriatric nurses, working part-time in a nearby old people's home for the minimum wage. It is not a prospect that appeals to any of them.

So will it drive them to vote far-left or even far-right in protest?

Ms Bourlard's colleague, Maria Dussart, says she will still vote Socialist, but not because she likes Ms Royal.

"I'll only vote in order to stop the National Front getting in. I think all politicians are the same these days," she says.

"They lie, and make promises they can't keep. If it weren't for the threat of the National Front doing well, I wouldn't even bother to vote."

She is right that many others in the region will vote National Front.

In the last election in 2002, the party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen gained its highest score in France in this part of the north: 19%, thanks to widespread disillusionment with the country's mainstream politicians and parties.

Immigration

A few miles down the road, at a shop where the local garlic hangs down in braided bunches outside, customers are arguing loudly over the election candidates.

Some say unashamedly that they are planning to support Jean-Marie Le Pen, including one middle-aged couple who give their names as Yvette and Maurice, although they don't want to reveal their surnames.

Segolene, Sarkozy, Francois Bayrou - all of them have taken up the ideas of Jean-Marie le Pen
Dominique Slabolepszy
Councillor
"I'm worried about crime. My daughter's house was broken into the other month, and just look at the riots at Gare du Nord station in Paris a few weeks ago," says Yvette, shaking her head.

She believes that immigrants are being given preference for council housing, and are taking unemployment benefit that should be reserved for the French.

"We can't afford it any more."

Her husband nods in agreement.

"If you're called Ahmed, you'll do just fine from the French system - in fact better than if you're called Francois, these days. I will vote for Le Pen. I think he has got it right. France needs a change.

"I like Nicolas Sarkozy, too, but I think in the end Le Pen is straight-talking, and he tells it how it is."

At a nearby restaurant in Valenciennes, the grandson of Polish immigrants Dominique Slabolepszy, a local councillor, is campaigning on behalf of the National Front.

His grandfather came from Poznan to work in the coal mines, and settled in France.

But his French grandson insists that with so many jobless, there is simply no place for new immigrants nor for workers from Poland and Romania, even if they are now part of the European Union.

Mr Slabolepszy believes that Jean-Marie Le Pen will win much greater support in these elections than the pollsters predict, and even has a good chance of making it into the second round again.

"The National Front's ideas have penetrated all the other parties now - the whole issue of the flag, the national anthem, the question of national identity," he says.

"Segolene, Sarkozy, Francois Bayrou - all of them have taken up the ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They're now part of the mainstream. But when people vote, they prefer the original to the imitation."

Grinding poverty

Mr Slabolepszy wants France to withdraw from the EU, or slim it back down to the founding six member states, an idea echoed by many on the far-left as well.

The smaller extreme-left parties in France are also hoping for a good result, though nobody realistically expects France to elect a Communist president.

Roger Marie
Roger Marie is demanding social justice for workers
However, six of the presidential candidates are on the far-left, including Lutte Ouvriere, or Workers' Struggle, a party that also gained its highest nationwide score in this region, 7%, in the last election.

Roger Marie, 58, is a Workers' Struggle town councillor in Sin-le-Noble, a town of 20,000 people.

The town is so poor that only 30% of people pay any tax at all, while 700 families take free meals from the local branch of a French charity.

"It's a working class area and a poor one too. A lot of people work at the Renault plant near here, but just as many are on the dole.

"We hope if we get a good result in the election, we can persuade the government to look again at this area, and try to do more to put pressure on companies," he says, speaking in the fluent English that he learned while living in Oxford as a young man.

"We want representatives in businesses able to scrutinise directors' pay, and look at what shareholders get. We want to make things more equitable for the workers again."

Roger Marie says it is crucial for the far-left to keep fighting on behalf of all the workers in France, trying to spread the message that they - and France's army of unemployed - must unite to save skilled manual jobs and keep them in France for future generations.

It is a message being heard loud and clear in this region, even as it echoes around the empty factories that were once the lifeblood of France's industrial north.


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