Belgian streets echo with the anger of a nation bitter at guardians of justice

Industrial day of action shows solidarity with sacked Renault workers
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The Independent Online
A small group representing the 3,000 Renault workers whose jobs have just been axed emerged briefly yesterday from the giant car plant in Vilvoorde they have been occupying for a week now. They were taking flowers to the shrine at a Brussels petrol station where the body of a nine-year-old child was unearthed last Thursday morning.

The symbolic gesture linking the victims of the Renault crisis which has rocked Belgium and France, with the tragedy of Loubna Benaissa, the latest victim of Belgium's paedophile nightmare, was just one in an extraordinary day of solidarity which saw workers come out in sympathy throughout Belgium, but also in France and Spain.

Several hundred marched on the French embassy in Brussels, throwing the chassis of a Renault Megane over the gates, a protest at the failure of the French state which is part owner of Renault to prevent the closure, denounced by the Catholic Church in France yesterday as immoral. One-hour strikes were staged at Volvo, Volkswagen and Ford plants. Even showroom dealers closed their doors in honour of a pledge not to sell a single Renault car in Belgium yesterday.

Meanwhile, the family of Loubna Benaissa appealed for calm after angry protests and riots in the Ixelles district of Brussels amid mounting suspicions that Patrick Derochette, the convicted child abuser who has been charged with her murder, may have enjoyed police protection.

Events which are in substance unrelated appeared to come together yesterday, igniting a fresh wave of emotion in a country where public confidence in the political and judicial establishment could hardly be more fragile. The case of Loubna Benaissa is unconnected to the Dutroux paedophile gang but the discovery of her body four years after police closed her file has sparked outrage directed at an out-of-touch system which allowed a convicted child abuser to operate for years with impunity.

Industrial anger, meanwhile, is directed at a political class which seems just as out of touch with how millions of workers have to pay the price of cut-throat competition. There is disbelief at the ease with which a highly profitable plant could be axed overnight and bitter resentment in Belgium that jobs there had to be sacrificed before those on Renault's home ground in France.

The European Commission said that Renault failed to respect European Union directives on worker consultation before announcing the closure. Brussels has also blocked Spain's attempts to subsidise Renault's modernisation of a plant in Valladolid and has promised a review of legislation on industrial relocation. But the commission's words did little to soothe disenchantment with Europe at Vilvoorde.

"This is a catastrophe for us, and it proves that the social Europe does not exist, we have a social cemetery," said Gerard Verbeke who has been at Renault for 22 years and at 45 sees little prospect of finding another job.

"Europe is for capital, it is a Europe which does nothing for workers," said Frank Stoffels a metal worker from Antwerp who had come to show support. "What use is it to have European directives if Renault does not have to pay any penalties for breaking them?" Maximum penalties faced by Renault if it is found guilty of breaching EU law are around pounds 400,000.

During the day hundreds of workers from other industries arrived to support the sit-in. "It might be our turn in a few months time" said Johan, a flight attendant with Sabena airline.

Union leaders say the sit-in will continue until they get reassurances that at least some of Renault's production will be retained at Vilvoorde. They expect management to try early next week to get out the 5,000 cars being held inside the factory. "If they get them out it will be over our dead bodies," one said.