Monday, October 28, 2019

En Guerre: Populism and a Plant Closing in France [feedly]

I found myself arguing with every other paragraph of this post and cheering at the ones in between! Proving -- its a provocative read on the contradictions of globalization and structural change. It shows how both political and bargaining aspects of labor organization need some serious upgrades and social elevation to cope with these changes.

En Guerre: Populism and a Plant Closing in France

Stéphane Brizé's En Guerre (At War), released in France in 2018 and in the United States this July, tells the story a car factory closing in Agen, a small company town in the southwest of France.  In this grim and painfully realistic dramatization, viewers witness many of the predictable and formulaic features of corporate industrial relocation, combined with the impending specter of joblessness that looms over the community in question. North American audiences will see many parallels between this film and accounts like Julia Reichert's documentaries The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) and American Factory (2019), Amy Goldstein's award-winning non-fiction book Janesville (2017), and the voluminous recent coverage of GM closures in Detroit-Hamtramck and Lordstown.  The uncertain future of the Nissan Sunderland plant in the Northeast of England provides a similar reminder of the present and ongoing turbulence created by transitions in the auto industry.  In this context, En Guerre represents a useful instructional tool, yet from a cinematic standpoint it leaves little room for novelty or surprise.

In the tale in question, German-owned Perrin Industries calls on workers to accept a scheme that would reduce their incomes by paying them for thirty-five hours but requiring them to work forty hours and forego bonuses for the next five years. Despite state subsidies to remain in Agen, Perrin decides two years later that the facility is no longer competitive. While local management offers platitudes like "we're all in this together," the company initiates plans to close the plant, displacing its 1,100 workers.  Union leader Laurent Amédéo, a robust and salty family-man played by Vincent Lindon, leads workers in a lock-out, demanding a meeting with the Perrin CEO.  Lindon, like many of the characters, bristles with intensity, conveying the gravity of what is at stake.

The film focuses on the ensuing escalation of this conflict and the thwarted efforts of Amédéo and his comrades.  When Amédéo visits company headquarters in Paris, young company officers tell him that the chairman will not see him and that he should return to Agen, but to "have a great day."  Government officials are sympathetic but assert that they cannot tell a company not to close with any legal authority.  "We support you and your movement," the workers, now obtaining a growing measure of media coverage, are told.  At a meeting between the German CEO and the union, the executive exclaims that he loves France – "I own a house here!" ­– before coldly asserting that the workforce is not performing and that if there are no other jobs in Agen then perhaps they should consider moving elsewhere.  When he is assaulted and bloodied by protesting workers, who flip his car as he leaves the premises, the movement to rescue the plant begins to unravel.

En Guerre explores the tough choices union officials and workers must make in the face of impending closures and the fractures in solidarity that threaten to emerge. Brizé probes these questions with vim and sympathy.  But the film too often relies on familiar tropes of neo-liberal capitalism – like executives who explain that "refusing to see market realities is like demanding a whole new world" – that have been parodied in popular media since at least the collapse of Enron and even more since the 2008 financial crisis.  No politician anywhere on the spectrum professes to be a fan of plant closures, even if some actively support the economic model that encourages them.  Merely to critique the callousness of shareholder-driven corporate manufacturers that shift around production is, in 2019, somewhat shallow and banal.  Most of the audience knows this already.

Had Brizé's fictional car factory not merely been closing but rather relocating to Morocco, then the virtues of the dogged French proletariat might have really been put to the test.  Had workers received the outspoken support of Marine Le Pen's Front National, again not an unrealistic scenario, then the director would have been forced to confront the political challenges that working-class communities face across Europe in the wake of industrial decline and right-wing insurgency, from Campania in Southern Italy, to Saxony and Brandenburg in Eastern Germany, to the protestant sections of Belfast.  But Brizé does not grasp that nettle, living instead in the moment and process of plant closure, rather than navigating the broader and more complex ways that working-class communities are actors in the political fallout once the initial anti-closure consensus has disintegrated. Some blame corporate executives or national politicians when communities decline, but others point the finger at Central European migrants or Syrian refugees.

Released in France in July 2018, En Guerre debuted just over a year after the election of Emmanuel Macron as the president of the republic, and just months before the commencement of the grassroots gilets jaunes ­– yellow vest –  protests in November.  Initially a revolt against rising fuel prices, the ongoing gilets jaunes movement, which has been fading in recent months, attracted supporters of both left-wing and right-wing parties around a loosely defined collection of mutual grievances: against the wealthy, punitive tax policies, austerity measures, and, yes, so-called "political elites," including some or all elected officials depending upon whom you ask.  But the totemic subject of their ire was the president himself. Brizé's sentiments overlap with those of the gilets jaunes.  "The idea of the world that Macron defends is a brutality without name," he observed in May 2018.

But the vain young president and his bracingly masculine handshakesare quite easy to dislike, and he is widely disapproved of in France, even by many who voted for him in the final round to avert a Le Pen presidency.  Such a diversity of the French population may hold mutual antagonisms, but reach widely different conclusions in identifying the most cogent remedies.  En Guerre provides a fast-paced and energetic depiction of the implications of the free movement of capital within the European Union without engaging with the destructive nationalism that has been unleashed by the numerous demagogues intent on benefitting from such circumstances.

Brizé's critique of twenty-first century corporate mobility may have been fresh in 2005, but it fails to break new ground in explaining how working-class communities process industrial decline in 2019.  It is wishful thinking to contend that a conversation on job loss can be narrowly defined as a debate on the movement of capital without touching on immigration, too. The internal contests between ideas of nationalism, multiculturalism, xenophobia, and identity, conversations buoyed by a surfeit of false information on social media and the fusion of physical and virtual discourse are as real as and as bound to define the future landscape of a community as those between a German executive and a French union.  The logic of neoliberal capitalism might close down a factory, but a series of angry rallies against fictitious Asian rapists and pedophiles or a brutal attack on a pride parade will ensure that it never re-opens. The European working classes face a multitude of painful political and cultural challenges, and as admirable as Brizé's solidarity and commitment to the blue-collar worker may be, this is not a time for the romanticism that En Guerre ultimately delivers.

Patrick Dixon, Georgetown University

Patrick Dixon is a research analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and the managing editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History.

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