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Gillette Plant Issue : U.S.-French Ties Take on a Hard Edge

November 29, 1988|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

Members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, briefed on the matter by a U.S. Embassy official in October, reacted with equal horror. The members had visions of the French business climate slipping back into the open hostility of the Charles de Gaulle years, when France gained a reputation as a poor place for Americans to do business.

No Response from Company

Except to say that he "has not retreated one millimeter" from his earlier stand, Fauroux has remained mum on the Gillette issue since his controversial statements. Although there have been two other meetings between Gillette and French officials, the company has not yet come back with a response to Fauroux.

For a short time last month, relations became even more strained. French officials from another ministry attempted to hold up government approval of a proposal by Chicago-based Sara Lee to buy a troubled French hosiery firm, Dim, until Gillette pledged to keep the Annecy plant open. But that link to the Gillette case was quickly severed, according to some sources, by the direct intervention of Socialist Premier Michel Rocard.

Today, most observers agree that the French industry minister was strident and probably wishes he could recall his warlike words. Practically all parties involved--Gillette executives, U.S. officials, the mayor of Annecy, U.S. businessmen in France and even some of the workers here at the Annecy plant--wish Fauroux had tempered his remarks.

But the tough talk has made it difficult to negotiate a settlement satisfying to workers, management and the two governments without the appearance of someone giving up or setting an undesirable precedent. Certainly, other American businesses operating in France have encouraged Gillette to hold fast.

"If Annecy gets away with blocking this closing," warned one American business leader here, "who's to say that Hong Kong or Dubuque won't be able to do the same thing?"

In their strong protests to the French government over the Gillette case, Ambassador Rodgers and other American officials have come close to responding with threats of their own to the French government.

Rodgers, 54, a former campaign fund-raiser for President Reagan with strong links to the Administration, has struggled in his time here with the French language and some of the cultural intricacies of French life. But he has won the affection of the Socialist French government for his business expertise and his enthusiasm for the French market as a good place to invest.

Under Rodgers, the U.S. Embassy produced and distributed an impressive booklet outlining positive aspects of French foreign investment policies.

In a direct dig at Fauroux, U.S. Embassy aides have told their French counterparts that Washington would never treat large French firms operating in the United States, such as Michelin, the tire company, or Saint-Gobain, the big French glass manufacturer, in the same way. Fauroux is the former president and director general of Saint-Gobain.

In fact, Americans have been puzzled by the hard-line positions taken by both Fauroux and Bosson, who is also a member of the National Assembly.

Profitable Company

Fauroux, 62, led Saint-Gobain out of nationalization into a highly profitable $12-billion-a-year company with plants all over the world. Before he joined the Rocard Cabinet, he was director of the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which produces nearly all of France's top political leaders.

Bosson, 40, a junior minister in charge of European affairs in the Chirac government, is a conservative, self-described pro-American politician with a sparkling future in French politics. In his impassioned argument to tempt Gillette to stay in Annecy, he offered to rezone the Gillette plant property so that the company could sell it for a substantial profit as residential land. He offered to sell at a low price some of his own land on the outskirts of town for Gillette to build a new plant.

Annecy and the surrounding Haute Savoie, Bosson said, has always been "pro-American both politically and philosophically." He said that when the Gillette plant's main labor union, the Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail, seized control of the plant in 1984 and occupied the offices for 12 days, he condemned the action and ordered the police to evict the strikers.

In fact, the leader of that strike, Jean-Pierre Toubhans, 44, has been the main strategist for the union in its current campaign, including the idea of the "reverse strike" and the climbing of Mt. Blanc. Toubhans is a former senior member of management, a graduate of the Sorbonne and of Gillette's management training program in Boston who joined the union after feuding with a former plant manager.

$50,000 Salary

He still draws an executive's $50,000 annual salary, although he devotes full time to union activities. There are some here who claim that resentment against Toubhans and his role in the bitter 1984 strike is the hidden factor behind Gillette's reluctance to compromise on the Annecy plant.

Toubhans has been credited for focusing attention on the fate of the Annecy workers. Even Gillette executives speak admiringly of his skillful manipulation of the French media.

But over lunch in the Gillette plant cafeteria on a recent afternoon, some of the workers were beginning to wonder if they are the victims of their own success. They had seen their modest movement to save the plant turn into a bitter issue between the United States and France.

"We never wanted the thing to become an affair of state," said Pierre Dussolliet, 41, another union leader and one of the men who climbed the mountain to save the plant. "We just wanted to keep our jobs."

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