French Airbus workers strike against job cuts

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Thousands of Airbus workers went on strike on Tuesday, protesting against a restructuring plan that has dominated France’s presidential election campaign.

More than a 100 buses brought staff from factories in southern Toulouse to a rally in the city centre to denounce plans by Airbus to cut 10,000 jobs across Europe, including 4,300 in France.

Airbus on Monday landed in the heart of France’s election campaign, as the leading presidential candidates rushed to present competing visions of how to solve the industrial crisis at Europe’s aircraft maker.

The government reacted to election-fuelled pressure to defend French jobs and production sites by promising to fund the aerospace group as it embarks on controversial restructuring, the biggest in its 37-year history.

Dominique de Villepin, prime minister, pledged that his government, which owns 15 per cent of EADS, the parent company of Airbus, would support a capital increase to shore up the finances of the group. Mr de Villepin also said EADS should pay no dividend this year.

Ségolène Royal, the socialist candidate, grabbed the headlines by calling for eight French regions, including her own constituency of Poitou-Charente, to buy a stake in EADS. She said this would give them a say over its restructuring plans, mirroring the stake held by Germany’s Länder.

Ms Royal promised to use her meeting today with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, to discuss Airbus’s plan to cut 10,000 jobs, 11.5 per cent of its workforce, and reduce its production sites across Europe from 17 to 10–11. Airbus plans to cut 4,200 jobs in France and dispose of two sites in the country.

Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the governing centre-right UMP party, on Monday flew to Toulouse, the French headquarters of Airbus, to meet trade union leaders. François Bayrou, candidate of the centrist UDF party, also visited Toulouse to meet union bosses.

Mr Sarkozy seemed to shift his position on the debate. After calling last week for Airbus to be left alone to compete commercially, he said on Monday that the state should intervene if needed, just as he did as finance minister in 2004 to bail out Alstom, the engineering group.

“We shouldn’t be defeatist. We saved Alstom and I have not decided to let Airbus fail. We recapitalised Alstom. If we need to boost the state’s stake in Airbus, why not?” Mr Sarkozy said before his meeting with Airbus union chiefs.

The UMP candidate also promised to shake up the Franco-German shareholder pact at Airbus, blamed by many commentators as the root cause of its problems. “Some [partners] will leave, others will come on board. We need to renegotiate the shareholders’ pact,” he said.

Lagardère, the French media group, owns 7.5 per cent of EADS and holds the voting rights for the government’s 15 per cent stake, while DaimlerChrysler, the German carmaker, owns 15 per cent and controls 22.5 per cent of voting rights.

Airbus staff in France plan a half-day strike on Tuesday in protest at the so-called Power8 restructuring plan announced last week by Louis Gallois, its French chief executive, to save €2.1bn ($2.8bn, £1.4bn) by 2010 and generate cumulative additional cash flow of €5bn over three years.

French unions expect a strike across all four of the aircraft maker’s main sites. People inside EADS and Airbus said they expected a high level of participation, after thousands of workers last week walked out in impromptu strikes.

Senior management is frustrated that the restructuring has been hijacked by presidential candidates, blaming them for making discussions with unions even more difficult.

Business leaders are watching developments warily, fearing politicians’ efforts to court the labour vote could fuel wider social unrest. Alcatel-Lucent, Michelin, Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citroën are among the groups planning job cuts as part of restructurings.

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