As the year opened in Paris, two stories dominated the news, one of them sad, the other funny. The first occurred at the Talbot auto plant in Poissy, just outside the capital. Nearly 200 people were hurt in clashes between workers and foremen backed by management. Police were called in to avert further bloodshed. The violence took place against a backdrop of disputes within leftist unions triggered by the government’s blundering attempt to “restructure” industry–that is, to act as the manager of the capitalist crisis.
The other story might be called the comedy of the “sniffing planes,” to borrow the superb sobriquet coined by Le Canard Enchaîné, the Paris satirical weekly. It involved fraudulent science and stolen documents and would have made a good Inspector Clouseau caper. Yet it also had a serious side: yesterday’s conservative rulers, the preachers of private enterprise who are so quick to condemn Socialist inefficiency, had squandered millions of dollars in public funds on an enterprise straight out of the comic strips and then concocted a clumsy Nixonian cover-up.
Both stories are unfinished. Both were probably difficult to comprehend from the snippets that appeared in the American press. I will try to put them in perspective, proceeding deliberately from the tragic to the farcical.
Tragedy at Talbot
The riots at the Talbot plant were a unique event and a portent. On the one hand, management there is unusually aggressive and reactionary; it loudly proclaims the divine rights of property. With the help of a puppet union, it runs its factories like army camps, tolerating no back talk from the unskilled, predominantly immigrant, labor force. Talbot is also the weakest division in the Peugeot group, which has lost $776 million in the past three years, and thus the one most threatened by corporate belt-tightening. On the other hand, the French auto industry is in trouble, and a major shake-up is brewing. Many other sectors–coal, steel, shipbuilding–are gripped by a deep malaise. Having accepted the logic of capitalism, the Socialist government is discovering where it leads. The flare-up at Poissy could be a useful warning.
Although the name may be unfamiliar, Talbot is an established firm. Originally known as Simca, it was connected with) Italy’s Fiat Motor Company until World War II (unkind souls claim it acquired its predilection for fascist methods of management during that period). Simca was part of Chrysler’s short-lived European empire from 1958 to 1978, when Peugeot bought it and changed the name. By any name, the firm has been one of the Big Four of the French auto industry. The undisputed Number One was, and is, Renault–a success story of nationalization. Taken over by the government after World War II because its owner had collaborated with the Germans, it produces more than half the cars built in France. In 1983, with nearly 14 percent of the Western European market, it was Europe’s top seller, just ahead of Ford. The merger of the three other French firms is of more recent vintage and quite a revealing story.
In the 1970s, when Valéy Giscard d’Estaing was President, Citroen faced bankruptcy. The government could have let the state-owned Renault take it over but instead gave the privately owned Peugeot a loan to buy the ailing firm. The rescue operation was a success: Citroen recovered, and Peugeot, its appetite for expansion whetted, purchased Chrysler’s European subsidiaries. Only the miracle didn’t happen twice. International competition had intensified and top management committed a series of blunders, notably, merging the sales forces of Citroen and Talbot too rapidly. The output of Talbot cars dropped from 450,000 in 1981 to fewer than 200,000 last year. Before the riot in Poissy, there were reports that Peugeot wanted to close down its most recent acquisition.