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Forgotten French Turn Desperate

July 21, 2000

GIVET, France (AP) _ Remo Pesa pressed a button and, with a clackety-clack, the machines in France’s last factory producing viscose _ a silk-like synthetic used in making clothes _ once again whirred into action.

The display was more poignant than practical. The 153 workers at the Cellatex factory in Givet in northeastern France occupied the premises after the factory went into liquidation July 5 and threatened to take the toxic chemicals in the plant and blow it up.

Their desperate struggle has become a symbol for those people left behind by France’s much-vaunted economic boom.

``We have been completely forgotten by the boom,″ said Pesa, who worked at the factory for 18 years.

On Thursday, government negotiators and union representatives reached an agreement, with workers raising their hands in a show of support for financial measures to help them overcome losing their jobs. But some workers weren’t satisfied.

``When you lose your job, it’s not a victory,″ said Ferhat Asloun, 39, who has worked at Cellatex for 20 years.

The grounds of the 97-year-old factory contain flammable and toxic materials, including nearly 12,000 gallons of carbon disulfide. Angry employees stacked cardboard boxes around the tank containing the flammable chemical, the easier to set fire to it.

In an apparent copycat move on Wednesday, 96 workers at a brewery in Alsace in eastern France went on strike, threatening to blow up their plant to protest plans by the Heineken group to close it. In an angry display Thursday, they dumped several 13-gallon barrels of beer onto the street.

The workers in Givet made headlines throughout France this week when they spilled some highly corrosive sulfuric acid into nearby streams. With their threat to blow up the factory, they became an uncomfortable reminder that glowing official economic statistics do not tell the whole story.

Beyond the tale of 153 people losing their jobs, the plight of the Cellatex workers has become the story of those who do not recognize themselves in tales of Internet revolutions and economic expansion.

Givet is in the Ardennes, a rolling region of green hills overlooking the winding Meuse River on the border between France and Belgium. The unemployment rate in Givet is 22 percent, compared to a national rate of 9.8 percent.

The textile industry has long been a staple here, but in the ``new economy″ where company histories are more often measured in months instead of years, factories like Cellatex are dinosaurs.

``We are fighting first and foremost to save this factory. Today the workers are very angry. They are fighting for their dignity as humans,″ Pesa said.

``Here in the Ardennes, we have been totally forgotten by France,″ said Danielle Riebel, who has run a cafe beside the factory for 23 years. ``They think we are idiots. Factories are closing all the time.″

Unlike older workers, many of whom still think the plant can be saved, younger ones seemed pessimistic.

``The young people know this was to be expected. For us, it’s over. The factory is too old,″ said 25-year-old Stephanie Pecheux, who has worked at the factory for four years. ``Some people have hope, but we young ones are not crazy.″

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