French auto workers threaten to blow up factory

CHATELLERAULT: Laid-off auto-parts workers huddled Thursday around gas canisters tied to an electrical cable, threatening to blow up a factory in the latest example of extreme French resistance to cost-cutting in the economic downturn.

Other French workerss have kidnapped their bosses, blocked ports and barricaded factories to try to save jobs in France's worst recession since the 1940s.

Some 200 workers at the New Fabris factory outside the southwest city of Chatellerault, are each demanding euro30,000 ($42,267) from Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citroen, accusing the carmakers of killing their livelihoods.

If they don't get it by July 31, they say they will blow up the factory, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) southwest of Paris. They are taking turns guarding 20 canisters of acetylene and butane, once used for gas-operated tractors and now spaced out on both sides of the plant and attached by a cable. Guy Eyermann of the CGT union said half of them are full, though that was impossible to verify.

"We are at the end of the line," Eyermann said. "A lot of people worked here for 25, 35 years. Many have given their lives to the company." He called on "all factories in Europe that are closing to protest and do what the workers are doing here."

New Fabris closed down June 16 and all its 366 workers are being gradually laid off. They blamed Peugeot-Citroen and Renault for canceling contracts that represented the bulk of the company's sales, and began their protest June 20.

On the gates out front, laid-off workers put up black cardboard cutouts in the shape of coffins noting workers' name, year of birth, and "2009" the year they were let go. A workers' empty blue uniform hung from the gate. Enormous machines hauled from inside the factory stood in the courtyard, gutted and charred after employees torched them.

The shuttered factory still holds parts and costly machinery, and the workers are trying to keep Renault and Peugeot-Citroen from collecting any material.

The workers are meeting with officials at Renault headquarters on Thursday, and are asking for euro15,000 each from the company. The workers met with officials at Peugeot-Citroen last week, also asking for euro15,000 apiece.

PSA Peugeot Citroen spokesman Pierre-Olivier Salmon said the company rejected the demand.

"It's the world upside down," Salmon said. "It's not our job to replace the company's shareholders or the state. Why should PSA pay for this?"

Salmon said PSA had offered to buy New Fabris' remaining inventory for euro1.2 million, even though PSA had no need for the spare parts.

Renault spokeswoman Gita Roux said the possibility of buying the factory's remaining inventory is a possible topic of negotiations at Thursday's meeting. As for the workers' demand for compensation, Roux said, "It is not for us as clients to pay redundancy packages" for a supplier.

The workers on Thursday's "morning shift" guarding the gas canisters whiled away hours playing ping pong, petanque or simply chatting. No police were in sight, though local officials say police are monitoring the situation.

"I got a severance package of euro3,500, about two months of salary. With the economic downturn if I don't find another job this isn't going to get me very far," said Marc Pinardon, 41, a machine operator who worked at the factory for nine years.

Several car-related factories in the region are laying off workers — along with thousands of auto workers losing their jobs worldwide as the industry undergoes its worst slump in decades.

Pinardon and a colleague, Bruno Perre, a 50-year-old technician at the factory for 29 years, walked through the shutdown factory.

"They throw us a way like Kleenex," Perre said.

Their action prompted a copycat event at a factory of Canadian telecoms firm Nortel Networks. Workers at the factory in Chateaufort west of Paris briefly installed gas canisters at their plant before removing them Thursday.

Labor Minister Xavier Darcos said he "understood the anger" of the workers but warned against such "incredible violence."

The factory's outgoing director Pierre Reau walked briskly past workers Thursday without interacting with them.

"It worries everyone because some people are uncontrollable," he told The Associated Press.

Anne Frackowiak, top aide to the local governor in Chatellerault, said she thinks the workers' gas canisters are empty but that "we are watching."

"The biggest risk is a gigantic fire, but the fire department is on permanent alert," she said.