The French government has expressed its anger following the announcement by Japanese tyre company Bridgestone that it would shut its factory in northern France with the possible loss of over 800 jobs. It comes as trade unions call for joint nationwide strike action and rallies across all sectors on Thursday, the first major gathering since Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown.
"This is not a decision we took lightly," said Laurent Dartoux, president of Bridgestone's operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, citing overcapacity in Europe and stiff competition from Asian companies.
Wednesday's announcement of 863 layoffs by 2021 came as a shock to the employees in Bethune (Pas-de-Calais), one of many cities in northern and eastern France suffering from industrial decline in recent decades.
"We thought a restructuring was likely, but not a shutdown," Christophe Bouttmy, a Sud Chimie union official, told AFP.
The French Labour minister Elisabeth Borne and Industry minister Agnès Pannier-Runache also reacted angrily on Thursday, saying the government "disagreed completely with Bridgestone's decision," insisting that the manufacturer carry out "an analysis of alternative projects to avoid the site's closure."
For the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal, "Bridgestone must take reponsibility rather than look for excuses. It has invested in other sites to the detriment of the Bethune site," adding that the company had been benefiting from state aid for several years.
Hauts-de-France region president, who signed the joint government statement, expressed his disappointment on social media, describing the decision as "scandalous and unacceptable."
"This is something they've been thinking about for awhile. The directors lied to us like true cynics,"he told public broadcaster France Info on Wednesday, stressing that if Bridgestone didn't play by French rules, and respond to offers of state propositions, they would find themselves "facing a long and costly process."
"This is not the United States where we throw people away like used tissues," he said.
Bridgestone, which opened in 1961 in France, has said it will seek a buyer for the plant located 40 kilometres west of Lille, and would offer jobs at its other sites or early retirement packages.
In a statement, Bridgestone said its French retail and distribution network employing 3,500 people would remain intact.
France's economy minister Bruno Le Maire described the company's decision as "revolting", on Wednesday, echoing Xavier Bertrand's determination to "fight" to defend the rights of employees.
Mayor of Bethune Olivier Gacquerre said he felt "humiliated" by the decision and criticised the lack of discussion ahead of the move.
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He said the company had refused to invest in the site and "insisted on a production of small tyres which had no market, all while developing better structures in Poland and Hungary."
The Covid-19 crisis has prompted a worldwide slowdown in the automobile sector, particularly in Europe, with the market contracting by 40 percent in the first half of this year as lockdown measures and other restrictions discouraged new car purchases.
Some companies such as Renault for example were able to save their operations with the help of a government loan.
The Bridgestone case comes amid a rise in tension across the board as three major French trade unions call for a nationwide interprofessional strike and demonstration with affiliated student groups on Thursday.
Three unions (CGT rail, Solidaires et FSU) said they had called a stop-work action and street demonstrations to express anger over recent layoffs, and the contested the pension reform.
They are also demanding shorter working weeks to create jobs, and better pay for low income earners.
Philippe Martinez, the general secretary of the CGT union told the press that he was tired of companies closing down and firing workers under the excuse of the Covid-19 crisis.
He said while companies had received funds from a government rescue package, workers were struggling to get basic financial aid.