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Cooperative workers

Pénicaud’s fingerprints are all over another telling little history.

We buy tea in quantities. Perhaps more than we really need. The packets we throw in the supermarket trolley have a prominent “1336” emblazoned on their sides. It’s the number of days that the workers in the former Lipton plant at Geminos near Marseilles defended their machinery from the multinational that wanted to ship it all to Poland. The workers were, in the end, lucky. They won their campaign before Macron and Pénicaud’s revised Code de Travailstruck. Their workers’ co-op now, in the words of one of my favourite Watersons’ songs, “makes good tea”.

Lipton is a small part of the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever. Luxfer Gerzat is just a part of a much smaller multinational, the Nottingham-based Luxfer. In the Puy de Dome town of Gerzat, its speciality has been oxygen cylinders for fire fighters and the health service, particularly ambulances and treatment at home. It is the only continental European plant capable of turning out high-pressure, light-weight cylinders of the type required for these purposes. Useful items, one might think. Indeed the home page of the parent company’s website declares: “Luxfer coronavirus update: Continuing production for critical industries.” It adds that “We operate facilities in the US, UK, France …”

Forget any thoughts of continuing production. At the moment there is just one person in the factory out of the previous 136. They are there as a symbolic reminder of the workers’ occupation that started on 20 January. That day, contractors hired by Luxfer turned up to wreck the place. The company had been trying to close the plant since the autumn of 2018. The changes to the Code de Travail that went live at the start of this year gave the company a green light to act. Pénicaud’s ministry approved the final dismissal notices for the workforce in the first week of February as SARS-Cov-2 was digging its claws firmly into France.

The CGT union representative for the employees, Axel Peronczyk, had spent months lobbying government to get ministers to agree to back a workers cooperative to run the plant. There are many other workers coops in France. La Belle Aude makes superb ice cream just outside Carcassonne, and like the former Lipton workers they bring together the social and environmental with a strong emphasis on organic ingredients. They will both be hard hit by this crisis. MyFerryLink was making a real go of operating Channel ferries out of Calais until hung out to dry by the government of President Hollande and his economics minister, a certain Emmanuel Macron. What hope for Luxfer Gerzat?

When Macron said that as part of the “after coronavirus” France should take back its “sovereignty” over vital production, Peronczyk called on the government to nationalise Luxfer Gerzat and get the place working again. Not a peep out of Paris.

The indispensable people

It took a fortnight of killing, of closure, of crisis beyond his control, to bring Edward Philippe to sing, on Day 12 of Macron’s War, an early morning paeon of praise to every group of public sector workers he could think of, to those in the cold fields of winter, those ensuring clean water and constant power, those in the transport system; people “whose job is often hard and difficult”; “without them the country would stop completely”; “the country must thank them” “and to those who perhaps I have forgotten”.

The working classes were suddenly heroes who Philippe hopes will not notice that his government has chipped off some more chunks of their rights in a packet of 25 decrees rushed through on the back of the French parliament’s adoption of a law declaring a “health emergency”. Nor that his great plan announced on Day 13 to counter the epidemic with a billion face masks made in China and several thousand ventilators scrabbled from here or there, had not a word about engaging with France’s productive classes and those who represent them.

Of course, Macron and Philippe have their defenders. They have been hard at it on the 24-hour chat and news channels talking up the belated and authoritarian actions of the government, discussing endlessly the finer points of a disease on which they are inexpert, decrying the critics who have been pointing to the responsibility of those like Hirsch, Macron, Philippe and Pénicaud for where France is now.

One such, Christophe Barbier, former boss of the weekly l’Express, is a paid commentator for the private tv station BFMTV. As I was finishing this article he was on the screen. Come on, he jeered at the critics, no one saw this coming, no one warned of what is happening. He got his answer over a video link, from Christophe Prudhomme, an A&E doctor and spokesperson for their professional association, AMUF. Oh yes we did, he reminded viewers, many of us and over many years, but, when it came to the leaders of this country, “we were crying in the desert”. And, the doctor added, the money has always been there, but tucked away in tax havens or in dividends. He did not add: where Bruno Le Maire has allowed it to stay. But you can.

Google him and you will see how many times, how comprehensively, how passionately and for how long he had been repeating that message. He had mentioned treatment wards and equipment in a hospital in his part of the Paris suburbs that Hirsch and his accountants had lined up for closure. Much, he said, had already gone, but some we have just now been able to save and get working again. I took a chance on getting him on his mobile. “It’s the Jean-Verdier in Bondy,” he said quickly. “But I have to go. I’m on the ward. More patients are coming in.”