France Faces Changes in Global Economy

VENISSIEUX, France (AP) - In the birthplace of the people's revolution, French workers are renowned for revolting against threats to their lavish vacation, retirement and health benefits.

Strikes, virtually a ritual here, have paralyzed the nation's transportation, interrupted the Tour de France cycling championships and extinguished the lights at President Jacques Chirac's palace.

But the "workers' paradise" is not immune to the harsh realities of a global economy where competition is fierce and work hours long.

Nowhere is this clearer than at the Robert Bosch GMBH plant here, where many employees seem willing to accept unprecedented concessions - like working more than 35 hours a week! - to save jobs.

The 820 workers at Bosch's factory are voting on whether to accept new contracts increasing their weekly hours to 36, cutting bonuses and freezing salaries for three years.

If at least 90 percent agree, Bosch France has said it will cancel 190 of 300 planned job cuts and avoid compulsory layoffs for the rest. If workers reject the deal, financial director Eric Bazile said the company would transfer a new diesel pump production line to the Czech Republic.

Bosch is the first company to issue such an ultimatum in France - and more startling than the demand, the workers in this laborers' haven are accepting it.

The reasons are not simple. But like other industrialized nations, France has to come to terms with the need to compete in a global economy where there is no shortage of workers willing to take home lower wages.

Most of the 10 new member nations in the European Union trade bloc - including the Czech Republic - are in Eastern Europe, where the work force is hungry for employment. If France does not move quickly, the jobs could move east in droves.

"This has to end - us competing with the last country that joins Europe. If this is what they made Europe for, it's not worth it," said Rene Fraresso, a representative of the militant General Confederation of Workers union at Bosch.

But Bosch workers in this town outside the southern city of Lyon appear to be accepting the company's deal.

"If it's the only solution - why not? If that guarantees all the jobs, for me one hour is worth it," said Bosch employee Deniz Ozant, 27, as he pulled out of the parking lot. "Sometimes they give us bonuses, and sometimes we have to give something. We are well protected, so it's worth it."

At the offices of the union, known by its French abbreviation CGT, the prevailing mind-set was grimmer and angrier.

The CGT says Bosch is taking an ominous step that could ultimately threaten cherished social protections and benefits - especially the law setting the French workweek at 35 hours, which employees had felt protected them.

"Workers want to keep their jobs, but not at any price," said Guy Fernandez, a CGT official at the factory. "It's acceptable if it were paid, but it's not paid. This is blackmail. Bosch gave them no choice. This undermines the 35-hour workweek."

Bosch's strong-arm demand attracted widespread attention in France on Thursday, when phones rang off the hook and journalists streamed into CGT offices. But union officials conceded they were fighting an uphill battle, as the vast majority of workers were expected to accept Bosch's offer.

In addition to the cold facts of global economics, the change of outlook appears to be influenced by national soul-searching since last summer's heat wave, which killed as many as 15,000 people, mostly the elderly.

The reasons so many were left to die in the unbearable heat, are far from clear, but one of the factors blamed in a study by the Health Ministry was a sacred institution in France: the summer vacation.

In August, nearly everybody in France from the neighborhood baker to the president clears out of town. The health establishment is no different: with patients gone, doctors close and head for the beach, and hospitals close down whole sections.

Heat wave sufferers said they couldn't get in touch with doctors, and hospitals had fewer beds available. The elderly often were left to fend for themselves.

Leisure time is sacrosanct in France - workers get at least five weeks a year vacation plus 11 national holidays - but the stunning death toll last summer led the French to consider a radical plan to help pay for better elderly care: Make people work on a national holiday.

The Health Ministry study also said France's 35-hour workweek was partly to blame, as it had cut into hospital staffing. It meant health care workers who remained on the job in August were overwhelmed, Anne-Marie Le Gloannec of the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research said.

"One of the explanations is fact that you have the 35-hour week in the health sector, so the pressure on those who are working is enormous," she said. "Everyone is aware that the 35-hour week is a pretty bad idea."

Chirac opposed the 35-hour law when it was voted in under the previous, Socialist-led government. But in a televised interview Wednesday on the French national holiday of Bastille Day he said the law would remain in place - not wanting to touch off a major strike while his popularity is in a slump. But he said changes are necessary to give companies greater flexibility.