Workers from Goodyear have clashed with police outside the tyre-maker's French headquarters in a last-ditch attempt to save their jobs. They set fire to a pile of tyres in their protest over Goodyear's plans to restructure or close its plant in northern France.
The firm says it's too expensive to make tyres there in the face of a shrinking European market. It wants to move production to China, where the tyres can be made more cheaply and will be closer to booming markets. Workers' protests, government concerns and the complex lay-off process in France have held up the factory closure.
In yet another effort to save the plant and its 1,200 jobs, hundreds of Goodyear employees protested today outside the company's offices near Paris. Inside, union representatives met with management.
Protesters fired paintballs at a line of riot police sheltering behind their shields. There were several brief clashes, as police drove large barriers forward in an effort to push back the protest. One demonstrator tore away a policeman's shield while others set upon the officer, hitting him on the head. Only a spray of tear gas pushed them back. Police did not immediately respond to requests for an injury toll.
The fight over the Goodyear factory has become a symbol of France's hidebound labour market, which drew the derision of an outspoken American executive whose company considered taking the plant over.
"The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three," Maurice Taylor, the CEO of Titan tyres, wrote to a French government official.
France's political leaders took umbrage at the letter, but the country's Socialist government is also trying to reform labour regulations, saying that relaxing rules on firing is key to also improving hiring.
France's unemployment has been intractably high for years, even during boom times, and it has skyrocketed in recent months as Europe's economic crisis has deepened. Statistics released today showed the jobless rate rose to 10.6 % last year. Labour rules and generous benefits also make it expensive to produce in France.
The government's proposed reform would offer companies in financial difficulty more flexibility in setting working hours and salaries. The government hopes that will help businesses stay afloat, instead of shutting down factories or moving production to countries with cheaper labour.
"We came here to fight and avoid that they close down our factory because there is no reason for the factory to close down because it is extremely profitable," said Richard Jouhannet, a worker from the doomed factory in Amiens, who was outside Goodyear's headquarters. "We are fighting in the courts and today we are in the streets." Goodyear made 183 million dollars (£121 million) last year, down more than 40% from the year earlier.