French textile workers dump toxic acid over jobs
GIVET - French emergency services battled yesterday to seal off a stream near the Belgian border after desperate textile workers dumped sulphuric acid in a fight to stave off layoffs after a factory closure.
Toiling throughout the day, rescue workers threw down sand barriers to prevent leaks from the stream, turned blood red by several thousand litres of the toxic acid, into the Meuse river that also weaves through the Benelux countries.
The government appealed for calm and said the 152 employees who had barricaded themselves into the Cellatex factory in Givet when it went into liquidation on July 5 could not take the innocent people of the surrounding areas hostage.
Inside the premises, the protesting employees - who have also threatened to blow up the plant - kept a nervous vigil as the acid spill grabbed nationwide attention. The site itself, the last viscose production plant in France, looked more like a battle zone than a factory.
"Things could go bad, people here are ready to do anything," said security officer Remo Peza, a spokesman for employees at the factory in this tiny town, located on a finger of land in northern France that juts into Belgium.
As the long-running conflict finally hit the national TV news, politicians were quick to criticise the protesters drastic change of tactics, but stopped short of outright condemnation.
"The plight of the Cellatex staff is understandable...but it is not acceptable that the local population be taken hostage, no more those who live along the Meuse in Belgium and Holland," said French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement.
"This is a sorry story on the labour front and something has to be done, the government is working on it," government spokesman Daniel Vaillant said.
"But nobody can endorse or countenance backing actions which threaten the health of fellow citizens. Even if their despair is understandable, they should stop and opt for dialogue."
THREAT TO BLOW IT ALL UP
Newspapers printed ominous headlines like "fatal blackmail" and "the pollution of despair", warning that the acid spill was a frightening phenomenon that might spread among those left by the wayside in Frances latest wave of economic prosperity.
The unemployment rate in the Givet region stands at about 22 percent and, like many parts of the old industrial north, is less well placed to gain from a strong upturn in economic growth which has been cutting the dole queues elsewhere.
Industrial disputes have got way out of hand in the past - angry fishermen once set fire to a local council chamber - but some newspapers saw the eco-vandalism as a more degenerate form of attack.
A hardcore group of Cellatex employees has threatened to blow up the factory, where tonnes of highly inflammable chemicals are stocked. The say the dumping of the sulphuric acid was only "phase one" of a battle plan.
Talks were set to resume with a local government official today on staff demands for far bigger redundancy payoffs and retraining aid.
The head of the emergency services on the spot, Jean-Jacques Guibaud, said his team had managed to confine the acid to the immediate vicinity. "There is no risk for the population, or the fauna and flora," he said.
Story by Olivier Hamoir
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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