France caves into workers who put acid in river

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The Independent Online

The French government has paid a ransom of two years' salary and an £8,000 lump sum to 153 redundant textile workers who threatened to cause an ecological catastrophe by blowing up their factory.

The French government has paid a ransom of two years' salary and an £8,000 lump sum to 153 redundant textile workers who threatened to cause an ecological catastrophe by blowing up their factory.

The workers at Givet, on the Franco-Belgian border, were yesterday celebrating the startling success of what amounted to the country's first act of industrial terrorism.

The first but not the last. Impressed by the media attention and government largess bestowed on the Givet workers, a group of 30 Heineken employees in Strasbourg, eastern France, followed suit and threatened to blow up their brewery unless plans for closure were abandoned.

The employees of the Cellatex factory in Givet, in the Ardennes, could hardly believe the scale of their own victory. They won state-funded redundancy terms many times more generous than those laid down by law. Each worker will received two years' salary, an £8,000 "bonus" plus a "retraining grant" of 80 per cent of their pay for up to one more year.

The total cost to the French taxpayer is estimated at about £5m. However, there may be a further political and social cost in copycat actions, such as the one in Strasbourg.

Christian Larose, of the CGT union federation, said: "The authorities gave way on all essential points demanded by the workers and not in a niggardly way either."

Far from being shocked by the workers' threats, or the government's ransom payment, the French media paid tribute to the skill with which the Givet workers had turned a minor, local dispute into a focus of international attention.

Although it is traditional for French governments to buy social peace wherever possible, the Givet dispute enters surreal, and disturbing, new territory.

On Monday night, workers sitting in at the doomed factory released 5,600 litres of sulphuric acid into a channel leading to the river Meuse. They said that this was the first step in a four-stage action, which would lead to the blowing up of the premises, unless they received improved redundancy terms.

The factory - a once state-of-the-art plant undermined in the last decade by Asian competition - contained a cornucopia of toxic chemicals and explosives. The workers threatened to blow a hole 500 metres wide and 50 metres deep, destroying scores of homes and releasing a poisonous cloud over northern France and Belgium.

Union leaders tried to play down the seriousness of these threats. They said the dumping of the sulphuric acid on Monday had been choreographed for the media and had never been intended to reach the Meuse. This claim is open to doubt. Local residents say that the prompt action of fire-fighters prevented wider ecological damage but some of the acid did reach the river.

Either way, there can be no doubt that the threats were taken seriously by the government. As the workers themselves pointed out, it is unprecedented for such a dispute to be solved so rapidly and so generously.

Even if the workers now suggest they were bluffing, they have obtained money by holding their own town, and the ecology of two countries, to ransom.

Messages of solidarity have been arriving in Givet from factories all over France. The Heineken workers in Strasbourg took the flattery one stage further by threatening yesterday to blow up a series of gas-holders in the plant, unless the Dutch parent company withdrew its plan to close the brewery bought from a local company four years ago.

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