Can Europe Make It?

Amazon France

Amazon is a company in expansion. Not only does it not pay proper taxes in France, but it knows how to use public money to its own benefit.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
25 May 2020, 5.56pm
Lawyers of the Social and Economic Committee (CSE) and trade unions of Amazon France at the Versailles Court of Appeal, April 21, 2020.
Villette Pierrick/PA. All rights reserved.

Amazon France’s six depots were back at work last week after a month-long shutdown ended on 18 May. It took all those four weeks for the company to realise that it needed to fully follow key rules on safety at work, in the face of the Covid epidemic. The alternative before it was having those warehousing and dispatch centres held shut by the country’s courts at the request of all the trade unions representing Amazon employees.

The semi-state car multinational Renault, however, needed some further days before it could get its Sandouville plant back to work as the courts had decided that safety there had not been fully addressed. Temporary and part-time staff at the plant had been keen to return to work but the CGT trade union federation, with members among the full time permanent employees, asked the courts to decide whether the firm had done all that was required by way of safety procedures.

The Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and the Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud both joined in a full-scale media onslaught on the CGT for going to court over Sandouville. Keeping the place closed was “bad for the nation” according to Le Maire. There were “trade union officials today who are playing with fire by not sufficiently encouraging employees to engage in social dialogue and to respect decisions which have been taken collectively.”

Such phrasing is important for what it implies about the feelings across employees in general and society at large. It is, for Le Maire, “playing with fire” because he is fully conscious that his drive to get industry working again in the context of the failures by the government in the face of the epidemic could trigger an explosion of public anger.

And that word “collectively”? As the CGT was not in agreement, how was it a “collective decision”? One answer is that the degree of participation required to make a decision in a French workplace “collective” has been reduced by the changes to French employment law pushed through since Emmanuel Macron first entered the Elysée as an adviser to his predecessor François Hollande eight years ago.

In addition, the changes engineered by Macron and Pénicaud reduce the powers and capacities of the different works councils that for over seven decades have been a key source of influence for France’s trade unions. The position has remained a bit confused over the past six months with some overlap between the old councils that included one specifically charged with health and safety and the new where everything is focused within one smaller organisation with less resources. These are the bodies that can call in the state works inspectors whose evidence can trigger court action.

This was how it worked when Sandouville was kept shut. It was not the evidence of the CGT, but of the inspectors that persuaded the court.

It was not the evidence of the CGT, but of the inspectors that persuaded the court.

Opening and closing

Amazon is a company in expansion. Not only does it not pay proper taxes in France, but it knows how to use public money to its own benefit. The low paid workers in its depots have all contributed to the costs of creating those centres as each of the regional councils involved provided Amazon with a subsidy, the money for which will have come out of the taxes paid by people in the localities concerned.

Renault is a company in difficulty. After spending two decades systematically shifting production out of France, it is now angling for a state guarantee to unlock a 5 billion Euro bank loan so it can “restructure” in the wake of Covid-19. As the Sandouville workers were getting ready to get back to work, the news slipped out that Renault was aiming to shut several more of its French factories.

The CGT secretary Philippe Martinez, a former Renault employee, wryly noted that the people who had been demanding that Sandouville open before safety was assured and who were going around saying that staff there would have to now give up on days off to deal with the backlog in production “caused by the CGT’s action”, that these people were the same as those planning the permanent closure of other Renault plants.

One of the factories concerned is at Flins just outside the Paris region. It makes the all-electric Zoë small car. A quarter of those working there are on temporary contracts. The car they make sells for 30,000 Euros, much the same in pounds sterling, a price that few in the lower pay brackets can ever afford. The increasing use of temporary contracts combined with the threat of closure and the transfer of production outside France, was a feature of Renault’s approach under its boss, the now disgraced Carlos Ghosn.

Lurking in the wings of these arguments are the consequences of a key court case decided in December 2019. Three top executives of France Télécom (now known to the world as Orange) were found guilty of “institutional harassment” of their employees. The 345-page judgement is detailed indictment of the way the management of the formerly state-owned telephones and internet giant took employees on a forced march to mass sacking and “flexible working”.

The Force Ouvrière trade union federation (reputedly “less radical” than the CGT in the eyes of Le Maire and Pénicaud) estimated that 35 staff took their own lives between 2007 and 2009 as the management looked to reduce their 120,000 employees by 22,000. One set himself on fire in front of the agency where he worked as, in the words of the court, managers “destabilised the employees and created a climate of anxiety with the intention of degrading their conditions of work.” All in the service of better positioning France Télécom/Orange in the new world of the internet.

Since 2002, the Code Pénal has included harassment at work as a punishable offence. Up to the France Télécom case, courts had used this to convict and sentence individual managers but not what was pilloried in the December judgement, a systematic harassment of employees as a practice on the part of a company’s top management. The managers are appealing but the company itself has accepted the judgement. The appeal will probably not be heard until 2022.

Since 2002, the Code Pénal has included harassment at work as a punishable offence.


Another case that could set the courts against a powerful commercial giant also resurfaced as Amazon’s doors reopened. Back in 2012, Ikea was accused of setting up a system to spy on trade union activists in its workforce after it had faced strikes a couple of years earlier. The CGT put in a legal complaint and now, after seven years of investigations, the judicial system has announced that there should be a court hearing later this year.

Put that alongside the way courts have begun to positively respond to the argument that those working for Uber, Deliveroo and the like should be seen as having proper employment rights, and there is a formula for some tough legal and union struggles as France opens up after its lockdown, but with millions forced to seek a livelihood in this new world of part-time, high pressure, vulnerable and often distance working.

Usually restrained in its critique of business, the centrist daily, Le Monde whose judgements still count in France, offered a harsh editorial comment on France Télécom and its methods, a judgement that might serve as a commentary also on the experience of many in France over the last decade and a half. Yes, it said, large firms in France had to face an “economic war” in which the limits of their employees performance were pushed ever further, but

One cannot build for the long term by organising the suffering of employees, their permanent humiliation, the loss of self-esteem, or by fear instilled into them to, supposedly, make them more productive. An enterprise gets its wealth from its employees. Once their dignity is attacked, even in the interests of profitability, then the whole has everything to lose.

The France Télécom experience pushed the theme of “burn out” – the French use the English words – to the top of the political agenda where it has stayed. It was there in the year long strike and protests across the hospital system in the run up to Covid-19. And it was there as Amazon kept its staff working as the epidemic spread. Conditions at its depots were such that the CFDT federation (reputedly “moderate” in the eyes of Le Maire and Pénicaud) told its members to go on strike on 8 April. “We have exhausted all possibilities of creating a social dialogue (that phrase again!) with the management,” it declared.

Pesky masks

It is there in the faces of the young men, all Black, hanging around outside the eateries now selling their meals over the internet for delivery by bike. There is a row of three of these cafés I pass on my way to buy the daily papers and on the wide pavement opposite a dozen or so young men, with their bikes and insulated backpacks, wait on the off chance that they will be called. None have masks, gels or any other sign of protective equipment.

Macron still cannot bring himself to say that there still are not enough of these items to go around. The words just stick in his craw. As Amazon employees were coming to the end of their first day back at work, Macron was on the commercial 24 hour news channel BFMTV. He had invited its journalists into the Elysée to show off the government’s work in dealing with Covid-19.

But had not “mistakes in communication been committed in respect of the lack of masks,” one asked.

His reply needs to be taken at full length in order to see a President usually confident, if not strident, in his sonorous flow of words, brought to halt over a tiny truth: “I … I … what I have said also applies to this subject … I think … Many things have been said on this subject … I returned to it, the Government, we would not have … things have been said … the things have been managed, we have not known the situation … There … was a restrictive policy, to avoid ever being in rupture, that the Government took and which was, I think, the right one.”

Which is to say that, as the government did not give masks to those who needed them, there were always some left in the government stores.

“But let us have,” he added, “the honesty collectively to say that at the start of the month of March, even more so in February and in January, nobody spoke of masks because we would never have thought of being obliged to restrict in some way the distribution of them, to give them to health workers.”

Grinning at the camera some moments earlier, he had told viewers that it was a rule for him never to reveal what goes on in his head when he is taking a decision. His grin was cheeky, like a self-satisfied kid remembering how they had tricked a teacher into thinking that they were not the one who had thrown all the toilet rolls down the kazi before the lunch break.

As you will have guessed, it is a lie to say no one was talking of masks early in March. I know it is a lie because I have kept the statements from hospital staff trade unions saying they were needed. But I also know it is a lie because, like many others in France, I got a little tweet from someone on 3 March announcing: “We are requisitioning all the stocks and the production of protective masks.” The tweet was sent off at 16.26, maybe not by Macron himself, but certainly from his official Twitter account.

I got a little tweet from someone on 3 March announcing: “We are requisitioning all the stocks and the production of protective masks.”

Bezos jets in

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, New Delhi, January, 2020. | Hindustan Times/PA. All rights reserved.

Perhaps one of the things that Macron will now say took his mind off those pesky masks, was a visit to the Elysée by the Amazon tycoon himself on 28 February. Bezos, swept into France in his gas-guzzling private jet for an hour or so of chat with the French president about the environment, climate change and the need to cut down on green-house emissions.

Macron did not take him sightseeing to Louis XIV’s extravaganza, the Château de Versailles, as Jeff had been there before, on 9 March 2014, to be precise. Carlos Ghosn, who had been using Renault as his skateboard to riches, hosted his 60th birthday party in the Château, paid for, of course, by the company. Just as the Japanese authorities are after him for how he abused Nissan, so French judicial investigators have been chasing Ghosn on this one. A video of the event leaked in 2019. In it, you can catch a fleeting glimpse of Jeff, wine glass in hand. Go here for a chance to spend eight minutes ogling at the life style that no Orange, Renault or Amazon worker ever gets to share.

Just as Ghosn was generous with what he creamed off from the workers at Renault, so is Bezos with the spare penny or two he has made out of those at Amazon. A gift of 2.5million Euros went to the French Red Cross. True, that may be less than he has earned in the time it took you to read this article, but let’s not be too harsh on the poor guy. Amazon has also created a “Skill Alexa” for its followers in France. They can download it for free! Blurt out the right phrase and a donation is off to that Red Cross before you can catch your breath. But be careful, unfortunately it goes from your bank account, not Jeff’s.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData