Why the workers in prosperous, Americanised France will vote 'no'

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The Independent Online

This could be New Jersey-sur-Seine: a series of Edge Cities on the western flank of the Paris conurbation. Factories, offices, shopping malls and tens of thousands of dormer-bungalows are scattered along the once beautiful Seine valley.

This could be New Jersey-sur-Seine: a series of Edge Cities on the western flank of the Paris conurbation. Factories, offices, shopping malls and tens of thousands of dormer-bungalows are scattered along the once beautiful Seine valley.

Change, and resistance to it, are the core unspoken issues in Sunday's French referendum on the EU constitution.

The "no" camp, leading in the polls with five days to go, has mobilised fears that a stronger, wider European Union menaces the French way of life, from job security, to abortion, to baguettes.

If you visit Flins, or Elisabethville, or any of the other new-industrial-commuter towns west of Paris, you might think that the old France of sleepy villages and vibrant urban culture in large towns was already dead.

Here the automobile rules. Shopping malls extend for hundreds of acres beside the A13 motorway. The Renault factory near Flins ­ one of the largest and most modern car factories in the world ­ covers almost four square miles, twice the size of Monaco.

Renault, and Peugeot-Citroen, which has a vast factory at Poissy 12 miles away, are among the great economic successes of France. Renault, and its Japanese subsidiary, Nissan, hopes to become one of the dominant car-makers in the world in the next 10 years.

That expansive strategy is based on global trade and the opening of European markets and investment to the east: precisely the issues that part of the French left, and the French far right, have turned against the EU constitution.

On the second stage of The Independent's "tour de France" before Sunday's vote, we have left struggling, "old industrial" Lorraine and come here to the booming, Americanised, Renault-dominated Seine valley.

Here, of all places, you might think, calls for protectionism and fear of change would fall on deaf ears. The opinion polls suggest otherwise. In central Paris ­ now mostly wealthy, cosmopolitan and professional ­ the "yes" is far ahead. In the outer western, blue-collar suburbs, the "no" looks likely to be victorious.

I met David, 36, who works in the Renault factory at Flins, coming out of the company sports centre. He was a definite "no".

"This is a constitution for breaking workers' rights, what few we still have," he said. "It is a constitution written by and for the bosses, so that they can move work out of France to low-paid countries like Romania, or bring Romanian workers here on Romanian wages." But, I objected, all the free trade and competition language in the constitution comes from the previous EU treaties, going back to 1958. Maybe, he said, but the lowly paid Poles, and the Czechs and the Slovaks and the Romanians were not in the EU in 1958.

The change of leadership in Renault, with the accession to the top job of a Franco-Brazilian of Lebanese extraction, Carlos Ghosn, has crystallised the fears of many Renault workers. M. Ghosn made his reputation at Nissan as a cost-cutter. There is also suspicion about Renault's brightest new idea, the Logan, a cheap, basic car stripped of electronic gadgetry, aimed at motorists in the developing world.

Although the Logan will use many parts made in France for other Renault models, it is being assembled in Romania and Russia. "It is a test car, an experiment," David said. "Once they have the factories in eastern Europe working as they want, they will shift the assembly of other cars away from France. In Romania, they earn ¤50 a week. How can we compete with that?" The minimum wage, or SMIC, in France is about ¤266 (£183) for a 35-hour week.

Jean-Christophe, 40, formerly a Peugeot car worker, now working on a temporary contract for a transport company, complained that many Renault and Peugeot workers ­ once blue-collar aristocrats in France ­ had already been reduced to the minimum wage.

"The days when Renault and Peugeot hired full-time workers on proper wages are dead," he said. " You go there now and all they have to offer is temporary contracts on the SMIC. At the end of three months, or five months, if car sales are down, boom, you're gone."

The standard criticism of the French economy is that it has a "rigid" labour market and excessive protection for workers. In truth, this is still the case in the public sector but has been broken down by the big industrial groups, like Renault. The anti-European, anti-globalist mood of French blue-collar workers is based partly on fear of change, but also on bitter resentment at changes that have already happened.

And New Jersey-sur-Seine is not so American as it first looks. In the soulless suburban sprawl of Elisabethville, there was a long queue outside an "artisanal" bakery and patisserie with wares as varied and mouth-watering as in a posh quartier of Paris.

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