First they poisoned the river. Now the desperate workers of Givet threaten to blow up their town

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The Independent Online

As I was talking to Brigitte Berdo ("Make sure that you don't call me Bardot"), there was a deafening blast at the factory gate behind us. A white surgical glove, filled with oxygen and a gram of carbon sulphate, had been thrown on to a bonfire. Boom! "You see," she said, grinning broadly. "That is what just one gram can do. We have 46 tons of the stuff inside the factory, already fused to go off. The men reckon it would be enough to blow a hole 500 metres wide and 50 metres deep."

As I was talking to Brigitte Berdo ("Make sure that you don't call me Bardot"), there was a deafening blast at the factory gate behind us. A white surgical glove, filled with oxygen and a gram of carbon sulphate, had been thrown on to a bonfire. Boom! "You see," she said, grinning broadly. "That is what just one gram can do. We have 46 tons of the stuff inside the factory, already fused to go off. The men reckon it would be enough to blow a hole 500 metres wide and 50 metres deep."

She pointed to the pretty bungalows 50 metres away. She pointed to the bar across the way, called the Vin sans Eau - wine without water - which was doing its best-ever lunch-time trade, and possibly one of its last.

"All those buildings would be destroyed," Ms Berdo said eagerly. "And the ones behind, including my own house. And the other chemical factory over there. Like a little nuclear explosion."

A group of children lolled on bicycles, staring vacantly at the ugly old, red-chemical splashed Cellatex factory that might be blown to bits by its redundant workers. That, at least, would add a little bit of excitement to the summer holidays.

Come on, I said to Brigitte Berdo. You and your 152 workmates, don't really mean it, do you? It is just an idle threat to force the French government to put more money on the negotiating table. You don't seriously intend to blow up your factory, and half the small town of Givet on the Franco-Belgian border, just because you want more redundancy pay. You might poison the river Meuse (100 metres away) and release a cloud of toxic chemicals, over three, maybe four, countries.

Ms Berdo, 42, nodded her head. "There are some crazy people in there," she said. "The men especially. The men are the worst. They're desperate and ready to do anything." Does that mean she, herself, is opposed to blowing up the man-made fibres plant, where she has worked for 20 years? Is she opposed to the (mostly) failed attempt to poison the Meuse with sulphuric acid the night before? "No," she said, shrugging. "I'm in favour of it. Even if it blows up my own house. When the factory goes, we will have nothing left in any case.

"In France, you have to use a little violence now and then to make the bosses in Paris sit up. We're luckier than some factories around here which closed and the workers didn't get a penny. We have a weapon. We have to use it and, if necessary, we will. But, of course, we hope it doesn't come to that..." Industrial terrorism has come to France.

In the neat estate of bungalows beside the plant, a group of residents stood in the street, calmly discussing the workers' threats to destroy their homes, as if it might be a bad weather forecast.

"They would do it, all right. They're in there getting drunk and getting bored. Some of them are crazy," said Patrick, 42, himself made redundant recently from another factory. Unemployment is 22 per cent and rising in Givet, a forgotten little town in the French Ardennes, part of a narrow sliver of France plunged into the belly of Belgium. The national rate is 9 per cent and falling.

"The government accuses them of blackmail. It's not blackmail. It's terrorism," Patrick said. "They've taken us hostage and they've taken the environment hostage. I suppose the government will have to give in, but what happens next? What will the next redundant factory threaten to do?"

The word "terrorism" was disputed by some of the workers at the Cellatex plant yesterday (the factory where rayon was invented). Others accepted it with a shrug.

The threat to blow up the factory, closed on 5 July after an 11-year struggle against Asian competition, was played down yesterday by a spokesman for the workers. Maurad Rabhe, secretary of the works council, blamed "press sensationalism" which had seized on the comments of a crazy fringe. Talk of this kind, he said, would only encourage "hot-heads" inside the factory. It was difficult enough to control them as it was.

Every Cellatex employee I spoke to happily supported the idea. In the same sentence, they blamed the blast threat on a "hard core" of 10 or 20 people, and then insist: "We will do it." No one expressed any regret or shame about the deliberate release of 5,000 litres of red-dyed sulphuric acid into a feeder channel leading to the Meuse on Monday night - supposedly the first of four stages of action leading to the blowing up of the factory.

Prompt action by firemen, who blocked the channel with sand bags, prevented an ecological catastrophe. But, despite official denials, it was clear yesterday that some of the acid did get into the river, which enters Belgium 150 metres from the factory before flowing into the North Sea though the Netherlands.

The Cellatex workers are demanding lump sum redundancy payments of £15,000 and government guarantees on new factories for the Meuse valley. They complain they are victims of a French government policy to write off the textile industry and concentrate on hi-tech and aerospace exports. "We have agreed that the Asians can pay for their Airbuses in clothes," said one union leader. The Cellatex plant is the last textile factory in a valley once crowded with them.

The workers also complain that the French Ardennes - a beautiful but little known region, isolated from the rest of France but only 50 miles from Brussels - has been abandoned by successive governments in Paris. "Down there they think we are really Belgians, and the Belgians won't do anything for us because we are French," said Monique, 53.

So much for the European dream. If you look at Givet on a French map, it is at the far extremity of the country. But if you look at a map of Europe, Givet seems to be at the heart of the European single market, no more than two hours' drive from five prosperous countries.

Givet should, in theory, be a European boom town. Instead, it is a French "rust" town - although it is also a stunningly pretty place, on a broad loop of the Meuse between two wooded gorges.

French government officials say that it has been difficult to attract new investment - foreign or French - to ex-textile towns such as Givet, precisely because the local labour force has a reputation for hot-headed militancy. Local people say it would have helped if the French government had built a decent road to the town; the only easy access is through Belgium.

Either way, any prospective investors are unlikely to be impressed by the pyrotechnic threats made by the Cellatex factory's workers. Whether or not they actually go ahead and light the blue touchpaper (common sense cautiously suggests that they won't) the economic future of the small town may already have been blown to smithereens.

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