AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (Reuters) - Auto body painter Kamel Yousfi’s extended family emigrated from Algeria to work for Peugeot-Citroen in the 1970s. So news that the factory outside Paris where he has worked for most of his adult life will close came as an unforgiveable betrayal.
His emotional response: to declare “war” on the company.
Yousfi’s rage reflected the attitudes of dozens of unionized workers at the sprawling plant in the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois as they digested Thursday’s announcement that their workplace would be shuttered in 2014.
The furious response to the closure, which loss-making PSA Peugeot says is necessary due to overcapacity, stems partly from a Marxist-inspired union culture that casts relations between workers and management as a zero-sum class struggle.
But the anger goes deeper, to the roots of a relationship with paternalistic overtones that began nearly 40 years ago when Citroen - later purchased by Peugeot - recruited the site’s first workers directly from villages in North Africa.
“There are 500 members of my family working at this factory,” said Yousfi, 40, who has two children. “Many came to France in boats in the 1970s to work here. Do you think we are going to give that up easily? And do what instead?”
Having lured dozens of his relatives to France from Algeria, parked them in high-rise housing estates and ensured their lives revolved around the factory, Yousfi said, Peugeot owed them more than promises of a new job.
In his eyes, the company owes it to them to keep the factory open.
Peugeot says the plant is losing too much money, and has told workers that most will be given new jobs on the same site after a proposed conversion to new activities, or at another factory in Poissy, a more distant Paris suburb.
Union leaders want the factory to stay. Jean-Pierre Mercier, the CGT leader on-site, told a throng of workers on Thursday to reject all promises from Peugeot Chief Executive Philippe Varin as “lies and manipulations”.
“Every time we go out (to protest), we need to make an impression, and what does that mean? It means that it needs to be painful for Peugeot,” Mercier said over a loudspeaker.
Aulnay workers, he added, would join forces with other threatened peers in September when the union launches protests against a planned wave of corporate restructuring which could result in tens of thousands more job losses.
The threat places the hardline CGT, allied with the Communist Party, on a collision course with Socialist President Francois Hollande, who won election this year promising to prevent abusive layoffs without spelling out what that meant.
To many in Aulnay, an immigrant-heavy suburb northeast of Paris, the announcement of Peugeot’s departure is gut blow after years of grinding decline. Most manufacturers have already left the surrounding Seine-Saint-Denis region, giving it France’s highest unemployment rate.
“We are not equipped to deal with this sort of shock,” said Gerard Segura, the town’s Socialist mayor, warning of a spike in unemployment if Peugeot’s promises to find new jobs for its employees did not materialize.
Workers say the closure of the factory removes a pillar of stability and a source of pride from the community, as well as a former jewel of French industry.
Opened by Citroen in 1973, the site was originally conceived to produce sleek DS models - a swaggering automobile whose bold curves expressed the self-confidence of the pre-oil crisis era.
Citroen had planned big. Rather than hire Communist-permeated French workers from the surrounding area, it sent recuiters to former colonies in North Africa to recruit boatloads of immigrants.
The mostly Moroccan and Algerian workers were housed in giant estates surrounding the Peugeot site where many of their descendants still live. The 180-acre factory compound, which provides social services, has a health club and a cart-racing circuit, represents more than work.
The biggest housing project was the hulking Cite des 3000.
“In the Cite des 3000, 80 percent of the dads work for PSA,” said Mustafa Ayoub, a 23-year-old resident. “They had their entire lives there, and now they have no idea what they are going to do.”
An old-fashioned employer, Peugeot - which purchased Citroen in 1976 - exerted strict control over union activities. Only tame unions approved by management were allowed until the early 1980s, when the CGT made its first secret inroads.
Over time, Peugeot management agreed to recognize the CGT, which represents about 40 percent of the workforce today.
The union shaped life at Aulnay for more than a decade, said CGT member Yousfi, holding sway over hiring and ensuring favorable working conditions. That contributed to beliefs that Aulnay would survive as it was, even as car plants elsewhere in France introduced tougher management techniques.
Workers at the factory got longer meal breaks, more family-friendly shifts and, above all, respect from their supervisors.
“When other (auto) workers came here, they couldn’t believe the conditions, the respect that exists between workers,” he said. “They would go back to their old factories poisoned - that is what you call that the ‘Aulnay effect’.”
Standing under light rain outside the plant, the blue-eyed Yousfi reminisced about his start at the company 15 years ago. All it took was one call to a well-connected uncle in the CGT, who arranged to have him hired in paint workshop.
“All my cousins are here, I’ve been here since I was 27 - the company was like a father for us,” he said.
Asked what he would do next if his plans fell through, Yousfi shrugged and said: “We won’t let go.”
Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Paul Taylor