Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Suicides at Peugeot-Citroën

I stopped into Café Divan on rue de la Roquette this morning on the way to work, as I often do when I don't start too early. The only paper free was the local tabloid Le Parisien, which wasn't so bad as it is entertaining enough, an intellectual cut or two above its English-language counterparts and possessed of a charmingly innocent editorial voice. Many French people I know despise it but others find it a welcome change from the ideologically driven 'serious' press and an Australian friend of mine is of the opinion that reading it regularly will allow one to quickly understand Paris.

Today's issue had a number of interesting stories, such as Socialist Party veteran, and former Culture secretary calling for the position of Prime Minister to be abolished, weighing firmly in with the Présidentialiste tendencies of Nicolas Sarkozy. Newly-appointed Keeper of the Seals (or Minister for Justice, as other countries would have it), the French-Moroccan Rachida Dati, has also had to endure the story of her junkie brother's latest brush with the law, having been convicted at the Lyon assizes for drug-dealing.

The cover story was the most arresting however (as Le Parisien operates a subscription-only web service, I will refer to Libé for a link); the PSA Peugeot-Citroën factory plant in Mulhouse (in the east of France) yesterday experienced its fifth employee suicide since February, in addition to one at another of its plants. A retired plant-worker, since turned writer, told Le Parisien that the culture of internal competitiveness generated by management in the past twenty years has destroyed staff morale and generated a poisonous atmosphere among the workers. The implementation of a bonus system among the workers has been mainly blamed and has resulted in a breakdown in worker solidarity and an every-man-for-himself mentality. The pressure has also been too much for some.

There will be those free marketeers, particularly from English-speaking countries, that will smile cynically at this predicament of the French working-classes, seeing it as yet further proof of the laziness of the French worker, cosseted as it is in the 35-hour working week and a costly social-welfare safety net. But French productivity remains among the highest in the world (20% higher than the UK) , so questions as to the diligence and industriousness of French workers can be easily dismissed. When people are ending their own lives in such dramatic fashion there are serious questions to be asked. The French culture of working to live rather than living to work may have a certain role to play in stunting economic growth but it would be stupid to imagine that this has turned its workers into pampered softies unable for the pressures of the modern world.

These issues were addressed last year in the documentary on work-related illnesses Ils ne mouraient pas tous mas tous étaient frappé, which I have not seen, but now seems all the more urgent. Later on today Libé reported that a 48-year-old female employee of the nuclear energy group Areva defenestrated herself; there are more alarming stories included in both of those articles.