The establishment of a new manufacturing base in North Africa has fascinated me for the past couple months – though few others seem to really care. The leader in this movement has been Renault, which is setting up plants in Morocco and Algeria to build their popular, low-cost Dacia vehicles in factories where employees earn a fraction of what a French assembly line worker would make.
PSA doesn’t have a low-cost brand of it’s own, so jobs haven’t gone across the Strait of Gibraltar – yet. But the closing of the Aulnay plant, where a massive contingent of North African immigrants (now French citizens) work, is a compelling snapshot of the socioeconomic and racial dynamics of France that happens to intersect with the auto industry.
Volumes have been written on France’s North African population and their integration (or lack thereof) into French society. In the broader scope, the story of Aulnay will be a footnote, but for the workers whom Citroen recruited directly in the early 1970′s, building cars is all they have known since they left the Maghreb.
The North African workers were recruited for the age-old reason that continually draws economic immigrants looking for a better life; the natives consider themselves above such labor. Citroen, which owned the factory at the time, wanted to avoid hiring native French workers, which they felt were tainted by Marxist views on labor relations. One Arab worker delivered an invective that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rush Limbaugh program, stating
“Today’s Frenchman is spoilt”, says Yassir,an official of the CSL union. “He gets everything on a plate — social security, paid leave, a library, a discothèque. He can count on education helping him up the social ladder. He won’t accept exploitation. He refuses to work on the production line”.
In what would be emblematic of the social problems that exist in contemporary France, Citroen and other automakers domiciled the new immigrants in bleak, high-rise projects, like Cite des 3000, where “…80 percent of the dads work for PSA.” Aulnay and Cite des 3000 was one of the sites of the infamous 2005 riots in Paris, where North African youths clashed violently with police.
Unionization at Aulnay was generally sympathetic to PSA, which kept a tight lid on the CGT, a radical Marxist organization that takes a hard-line adversarial approach to management. The CGT was generally credited with improving working conditions at the plant, but still represents only 40 percent of the workforce.
The CGT, for all its outdated views, can’t shoulder the blame entirely. French President Francois Hollande made reference to PSA’s “strategic choices which have not been good” - Peugeot is lacking in the small cars that once made them great, while Citroen is no longer making the DS, just premium small cars that bear those two letters, with none of the groundbreaking looks or technology that gave the original DS such prestige.
Everything in the middle – precisely what PSA builds – is being decimated, while the low and high end segments are thriving. And rival automaker Renault is having a field day with their low cost Dacia brand. Dacia vehicles, like the Duster SUV and Lodgy minivan are winning critical and commercial acclaim everywhere from India to England – Renault has slashed their British lineup dramatically, leaving only the Renaultsport performance cars and a couple other models, to make room for the bargain-priced Dacias.
And in a twist of poetic justice, the Dacias, which some French observers have cited as a threat to the domestic car industry, are being built in North Africa, by the former countrymen of the first generation Aulnay workers, for a fraction of the wages that Renault would pay to a French worker. The 1,800 euro a month salary is by no means a fortune, but it is a ticket to a middle class life, decent housing and the benefits of the French welfare state. For an ethnic minority in a country where one’s best hope is a middling civil service job, working in a car factory is a highly coveted position, which makes the prospect of an African assembly base, capable of exporting 85 percent of its 400,000 unit capacity, even more threatening.
While CGT leaders and even former President Nicolas Sarkozy have come out against the African plants, there’s no escaping that the low cost cars are the right product at the right time; current economic conditions make car purchases particularly unappealing, and if one can purchase a vehicle as good as a Scenic or Kangoo for a fraction of the cost, then why not? Of course, the Lodgy and Duster can only be priced this way because the 250 euro a month salary makes the cars unaffordable for the Moroccan workers that build them. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like the French system that enabled the cradle-to-grave package that came with building cars is equally out of reach.