AutoWorkers and ‘Sniffing Planes’

AutoWorkers and ‘Sniffing Planes’

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.


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.

Its reasons went beyond the financial. The system of worker exploitation was breaking down. It had been a simple arrangement: a caste of supervisors (former paratroopers and colonial soldiers) placed over an army of unskilled foreign laborers. More than half the 15,000 workers at the Poissy plant are immigrants, a third of them Moroccans, imported straight from the African countryside. These “guest workers” began arriving in the late 1950s; eager for jobs and innocent of management’s motives, most of them joined the company union, ironically named the Confederation of Free Unions (C.S.L.). Those brave enough to join one of the independent leftist unions were harassed and sometimes sacked under various pretexts. Spies and stool pigeons were everywhere, not only on the shop floor but also in the hostels or local council houses where the workers stayed.

These banana republics could flourish only in a politically friendly climate. The electoral victory of the left spelled their doom. The year 1982 saw the revolt of the wretched: at the Citroen works at Aulnay and the Talbot plant at Poissy, the spell of the puppet unions was broken. In last year’s elections for workers’ delegates at Poissy, the C.S.L., which traditionally won by large margins, got only 34 percent of the vote. The Communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor (C.G.T.), rewarded for its past resistance to management, came in first with 42 percent of the vote; the radical French Democratic Labor Confederation (C.F.D.T.) mustered less than 10 percent.

When imported slaves begin to talk of dignity, robots become an attractive alternative. In the middle of last year, management asked the government for permission to lay off workers at Poissy (in France, all companies must receive government approval for staff reductions). The authorities allowed Peugeot to cut the work, force through early retirement and attrition, but refused to permit the firing of nearly 3,000 other workers. There followed a trial of strength between workers and management, with almost daily skirmishes at the plant. On December 17, the government produced what it boasted of as its “exemplary” Christmas present. It made a deal with Peugeot, allowing 1,905 more people to be sacked. The government sought to soften the blow by offering retraining programs to those who lost their jobs. In what seemed a clever stroke, it got Jack Ralite, the Communist Minister of Employment, to endorse the package, expecting that the C.G.T. leadership at Poissy would be induced to go along.

But the rank and file doesn’t always follow marching orders. Nora Tréhel, who succeeded her husband as president of the C.G.T. local after he was elected to the Poissy City Council, is popular among workers, and they listened to her make the case. But the mostly illiterate foreign workers were not taken in by glittering promises of retraining. As one Moroccan put it, “My son just out of technical school can’t find a job and you expect me, who can’t read or write, to be trained for one in six months? ” Some immigrants, concerned about growing xenophobia in France, talked of accepting a lump sum payment that would enable them to return home. Others refused to yield without a fight. They rallied behind the C.F.D.T. and its slogan, “No Firings.”

The C.F.D.T. called a sit-in for just before Christmas but did not have the support of all the workers. The C.G.T. leadership was torn, but hinted that its members should return to their jobs. For management it was a golden opportunity to avenge two years of humiliation under the Socialists (the top manager at Peugeot, Jacques Calvet, used to be a colleague of Giscard d’Estaing). Having received approval for the cutbacks, the capitalist bosses now had the blessing of a Socialist government.

After days of sporadic work stoppages, md with the leftist unions split, management brought in C.S.L. thugs from other company factories in the Paris area to evict the strikers. Heavy wrenches and slingshots loaded with nuts and bolts were some of the weapons used in the bloody confrontation. By the time the plant was cleared by riot police on January 5 , it was a miracle that there had been no fatalities. The evacuation was nevertheless a sad end to a story of liberation which had begun two years earlier with the awakening of immigrant workers.

Following the incident there were sharp recriminations. Socialists and Communists alike accused the C.F.D.T. of “extremism.” Edmond Maire, the union’s leader, hit back, accusing the government of using the Communist union as a “transmission belt” for its policies.

At Poissy the workers are back on the job, their battle temporarily over, But coal mines in the North and steelworks in Lorraine are also scheduled for restructuring. Optimists say Talbot will serve as a lesson. a sort of “what’s not to be done.” The government announced it would consult with all affected unions before implementing any restructuring plans, and the Communist Party is taking a much tougher stand than it did at Poissy. But skeptics point out that the government can’t follow a socialist employment policy while extolling profits and praising private enterprise. Once you accept the logic of capitalism, you have little room to maneuver. Both sides agree that the immediate future looks grim.

Having again been a messenger of gloom, I would like to share with you, for a change, a moment of comedy.

The Farce of the ‘Sniffing Planes’

Ridicule does not kill, but it leaves bruises. The millions of dollars of public money wasted on two inventions that were supposedly capable of detecting petroleum deposits would have worried French taxpayers briefly and been forgotten if Le Canard Enchaîné had not turned the annoying affair into the subject of a lampoon and nicknamed the unfortunate inventions avions renifleurs, “sniffing planes.” The French press has no tradition of investigative journalism, so Le Canard has occasionally filled the gap. In 1979 it revealed that Giscard, then President, had received diamonds from the Central African Republic’s ruler, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. The weekly first mentioned the inventions last June. In December its pages were splashed with a satirical saga about two crooks who took the government-controlled oil company, Elf-Aquitaine, and its holding company, ERAP, for a costly ride.

The story begins in 1976. Its protagonists are an odd couple: the jovial Italian Aldo Bonassoli, a clever radio technician and self-styled “professor of nuclear physics,” and the sad-looking Main de Villegas, an authentic Belgian Count. The latter may not have accomplished much since obtaining his engineering degree years ago, but he had connections with the Pan-European Union, a group of anticommunist crusaders with headquarters in Brussels. Hence, he had contacts in various intelligence services and influential friends in prominent circles in Spain and South Africa, among other places. He could rely on the backing of Philippe de Weck, then president of one of Switzerland’s financial giants, the Union des Banques Suisses, and of France’s veteran conservative politician Antoine Pinay, former Prime Minister.

With such important friends, the Count and il professore were welcomed at Elf. when they appeared offering a magical device that could detect the presence of oil miles beneath the surface of the earth or the ocean. They showed their hosts two complicated instruments. One was called Delta; its inventors claimed it could locate petroleum deposits from a plane flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet. The other, called Omega, would then be taken to the site, where it would record images on a video screen which, when analyzed, would reveal the depth, breadth and quantity of the deposits.

Armed with these marvelous discoveries, France would conquer the world–or at least outsmart the Anglo-Saxons and all their new technology. The instruments were kept top secret. Giscard was informed at once, early in June 1976; his new Prime Minister, Raymond Barre, was not told until four months later, when he was needed to waive various currency restrictions in order to transfer funds abroad. Elf made a down payment of 200 million Swiss francs–more than $80 million–as part of its provisional one-year contract with Fisalma Inc., a company incorporated in Panama for the inventors by their Swiss banker.

The first results of the collaboration were both dazzling and troubling. The pictures and graphs produced by the machine were impressive, and they jibed with the surveys made by the company using more orthodox methods of detection (apparently no one was curious about that coincidence). But the drillings begun on the exclusive advice of Delta and Omega in southwestern France and in South Africa produced no oil. Worse still, the government’s partners refused to disclose how the devices worked.

Nevertheless, the government was hooked. In June 1978, a new agreement was signed and 250 million Swiss francs–about $130 million–was handed over to the inventors, with more to come when oil deposits were discovered. The company opened offices on the Riviera, in Paris and at a villa outside the capital. It purchased airplanes and equipment for its laboratory, at the Rivieren castle near Brussels. The pictures continued to be perfect but, alas, the drillings yielded nothing. The promoters remained as secretive as ever. Finally, French authorities became suspicious and did what they should have done at the beginning: they checked the credentials of the men. They also hired Jules Horowitz, head of research at the French Atomic Energy Commission, to examine the system. In May 1979 he did so.

One of Omega’s talents was the ability to “see” through walls. So Horowitz placed an object in an adjoining room to test if Omega could register it. After two failures, Horowitz suggested using a metal ruler as the test object. Without telling il professore, he bent it into a V at the last moment. On Omega’s screen it appeared straight. The game was up. A month later another experiment confirmed the fraud. While testing the Omega equipment, technicians discovered that the images on its screen had come not from the outside but from a projector inside the machine.

De Weck agreed to turn over all the company’s assets to Elf, but the government’s losses will still total at least $100 million. Throughout the incident, the government gave the impression that it was more concerned with covering its tracks than with recovering its money. In France the finances of state and quasi-public bodies are audited by the Cour des Comptes. Its members, known as magistrates, are promoted strictly according to seniority as a way of insuring their political independence. In 1979, the magistrate in charge of the ERAP accounts, Fran&ccedilois Giquel, began noticing some anomalies. One expenditure climbed from 3 million to nearly 200 million francs in two years. Thereupon he was told by the President that there were special circumstances in the case: military secrets were involved. After all, Delta could be used to spot submarines underwater. He was allowed to continue his audit but was sworn to secrecy. The government never wavered in its insistence that military security was involved, that the phony toys of the Count and il professore had to be guarded from foreign spies. And so the plot changed. What had been a thriller became a cross between Gogol’s The Inspector-General and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin.

Even after the Socialists took power in 1981, the secret was well kept. Before retiring the following year, Bernard Beck, president of the Cour des Comptes and a political ally of Giscard, shredded the three documents in the audit office’s possession relating to the devices, as well as Giquel’s original copy. The veil was finally lifted just before this past Christmas. The junior Secretary for the Treasury publicly accused Beck of forfaiture (literally “abuse of authority,” but the connotations are strong) for destroying the documents. In the same week, Le Canard came out with its story. Sensing the potential damage to his reputation, Giscard counterattacked on television. The Socialist government claims the documents on the case have vanished, he said, but that is untrue. Dramatically, he produced his own copy of the Giquel report, like a rabbit from a hat, adding that former Prime Minister Barre had two more copies. As soon as the documents were returned, the government published the full report. The facts were so damaging to Giscard that he made a second TV appearance, in January. His performance was most odd. Contemptuously dismissing the questions of two journalists, Giscard criticized President François Mitterrand for “having allowed his predecessor to be attacked,” an act of lése-majesté that made him unfit to lead the nation.

Many questions about the sniffing planes affair remain unanswered. Why weren’t even the most elementary precautions taken from the start? Did the plotters have “moles” within Elf-ERAP feeding them information about its explorations and plans? Did they have accomplices within the establishment pressing the government to keep it hush-hush? What happened to the money? Not all the government funds were spent on equipment or expenses, so where did the rest of it go? To shady “anticommunist crusaders” abroad? To French political parties? Why did Giscard have the documents in his possession? Does the right consider the state its personal property and the Socialists intruders who are not even entitled to see secret documents?

Giscard and company’s shiny image of efficiency was tarnished by the revelations. Though they seem to have been fools rather than knaves, they were nevertheless discredited, and the Socialists may enjoy a good laugh at their expense. But they should not laugh too loudly. They will not be judged by the follies of their predecessors but by their own ability to deal with the current economic crisis–to carry out a different restructuring. However hard one sniffs, one cannot detect a socialist alternative to capitalist failures, This could be a year of reckoning for the French left–and one of great strain within its ranks.

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