French workers in the era of neoliberalism


Laurent, secondary character of Nicolas Mathieu Of fangs and talons, was once “a show-off and a hopeless romantic, who enjoyed B-roads and drunken weekends with friends”. That was 1988, and over the next decade he “began to design massive supermarkets”, transitioning from liberal to neoliberal. “In those countries still recovering from a communist hangover, he will build transparent towers, design shopping malls, chart a future of vegetable aisles, promotional sales and light strips.”

What is called “progress” in majority society is, in Nicolas Mathieu’s novels, almost always a source of angry cynicism. Laurent has resisted globalization much better than most of these characters, but he is still far from satisfied. His sentimental life falls apart when his wife, Rita, a labor inspector, “remembers that she is free and decides to leave him”. It was only then that Laurent, “who had always been a nice boy, although a little slow in assimilation, understood”.

At Matthew’s And their children after themwhich received the prestigious Prix Goncourt as well as rave reviews in the New York Timesthe FinancialTimes, and other articles in English when it was translated last year, was a lyrical journey through eastern France over four summers in the 1990s, as a cast of teenagers discovered for themselves the deceptions of globalization. His first novel – published in French in 2014 but only now translated into English by Sam Taylor as Of fangs and talons — is also nearby, in the Vosges of the region. But in this book, industrial decline is not just a backdrop, but a central scene.

If it weren’t for its distinct smell of Gaulish smoke and workplace violence, the novel’s premise could easily be transposed to the car factories of Detroit or the coalfields of County Durham in England. “Trade unionism was not a vocation for Martel”, we learn from the tattooed protagonist. “Until the army, he had never wanted to join anything.” But at the Velocia auto parts factory, in Mathieu’s typically unbiased way, he “sort of found himself getting elected secretary of the works council.”

When the factory is threatened with closure, he uses his in-depth knowledge of labor law to get in the way of the management. But despite his past successes, this time all he can hope for is delay. And he really needs it: heavily in debt thanks to the exorbitant charges levied by his mother’s EHPAD, Martel has embezzled funds from the works council. Abandoned by the regular economy, he and fellow Martel-loving bodybuilder drug dealer Bruce take on a different kind of commission in hopes of a nice windfall to settle the syndicate’s books.

The couple agree to kidnap a trafficked sex worker in Strasbourg’s red-light district. It’s a bizarre plot twist – but it seems fitting for Martel and Bruce to believe that their own salvation requires exploiting and commodifying a woman. Emasculated by the closure of the factory, which had allowed them to cling to “the life of men”, it is as if they asserted their remaining structural power, that of men over women. When Victoria, a victim of their kidnapping, escapes and (in another unlikely development) is taken in by labor inspector Rita, we get a glimpse of her own fears and dreams. Meanwhile, the underworld catches up with Martel and Bruce – not just Bruce’s friends the Benbareks, but also frustrated Russian mobster Victor Tokarev. Basically, the laid-off workers’ plan failed to consider Victoria’s agency as a human being – and as events spin out of control, they realize there’s no turning back. .

It is control, Martel discovers, that is most impossible to maintain in the modern world. For him, trade unionism is not “a question of justice or truth, but of saving the interests of your comrades”. But, in his ideals at least, Martel’s notion of the “benefits” of being a shop steward is imbued with a sense of class equality. He particularly appreciates the possibility of speaking as equals with management, as if the disparity of payslips no longer mattered.

Meanwhile, Labor Inspector Rita is fighting her own version of the same battle. At first glance, she does it more consciously — but Mathieu is not a writer who creates heroes on principle. When she crashes her car – like its owner, a struggling retro model in the modern world – Rita threatens the garage with a workplace inspection if the repair costs aren’t drastically reduced. “Rita wouldn’t have hated getting her piece of the pie either,” we’re told. “She took no pleasure in being holier than you. She didn’t hate money. But – and this was her big problem – it still made her angry. At her age, she still found herself angry at the state of the world.

As a prologue set in Algeria in 1961 explains, “every man has had his martyrs; each has found ways to justify their crimes. Bruce’s grandfather, a veteran of the far-right OAS (a paramilitary network run by dissident generals who tried to block Algeria’s independence) passed on his damage to his children and grandchildren. , while Rita’s family fled fascism in 1930s Spain. References to these two wars are more than added color – each of Mathieu’s loners and misfits are caught between the imperative to confront brutal corporate forces head-on, as in Spain, and their own inability to understand the changing world around them, like the black feetwhite settlers in Algeria.

Mathieu’s description of the French working world is not exempt from clichés. The predominantly male workforce speaks in obscene and sexist language about the HR boss. The CGT – the trade union confederation historically affiliated with the Communist Party – is described as “hawkish, extremist”. Labor activists, indeed, are mentioned condescendingly. But what sets the author apart from his few contemporaries who have attempted to write about unions is his remarkable understanding of the architecture of industrial relations, both figuratively and literally. This even includes relations between the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) and the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) and FO (Force Ouvrière) federations:

Now the last three Velocia temps stood in front of the coffee machine, watching the meeting of the factory workers, to which they had not been invited. They could see men sitting on chairs and boxes, with Martel standing behind his metal desk. For the moment, the secretary of the works council was listening, not speaking. From time to time, one of the men would start screaming and they would hear the dull echoes of his rage. Each spoke in turn and waves seemed to cross the assembled workers. A hand went up, several mouths opened. They saw Léon Michel get up: he had been there for thirty years, so of course he would have a lot to say about that. Pierrot Cunin, who had been a delegate in the seventies, the kind of man who knows everything and understands nothing, bellowing in his thick accent that the strike was the only solution. The temps tried to figure out who was saying what, but their view was blocked by election posters covering the glass walls. alongside the CGT. The CFDT is there to protect you. The FO is at your side.

This glass office was originally built for management oversight – but the air of mystery surrounding their “secret meetings in a goldfish bowl” gives the workers an empowering, if illusory, sense of empowerment. It is located in the oldest part of the factory: “Their predecessors had fought and enslaved there. Men had died. It is the spatial environment and the institutional history of the workers, as well as their jobs and their trade union activity, which have enabled them to maintain “the life of men” even when the demands of profit come to replace their basic dignity. For all Mathieu’s cynicism, he never suggests that the dispossessed simply accept their fate: as he shows so clearly in the sepia-tinted sets of And their children after them, even his most compromised characters have too much vitality and potential for that. “Capital ended up winning”, concedes the aging activist Cunin: “what pained him the most was not being able to pass the torch”.

As layoff forces Velocia workers to catch up with the world around them, Mathieu offers humorous, yet somber warnings about what this world has to offer. As with Laurent and Cunin, these are delivered in brief digressions into the minds of the secondary characters. A hired thug beats up Martel and then informs him that “with globalization, being freelance wasn’t like it used to be” – his own job gives him “an 80 to 100 percent gross profit margin”. Higher in the gangster hierarchy, Victor Tokarev keeps reading the same magazine article about a business school graduate who sacrificed his life for his job. “This young man trapped in a multinational, that was him. He had sacrificed everything – his life, his time, his energy – to succeed, to become someone. And yet, in the end, he slept for two hours night, bit his nails and expected the sky to fall on him every time his phone rang. And all that for what? He had forgotten.


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