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New Trend: Borderless Protests

Renault layoffs prompt 50,000 European workers to take to streets in Brussels

Europe's newest social trend - the Euro-protest - started small in Paris last week, where some 8,000 workers from Belgium, France, and Spain converged on Renault headquarters to protest the French automaker's decision to close a profitable plant in Belgium.

It gained momentum on the streets of Brussels Sunday, when at least 50,000 workers marched to protest Renault's "brutal" decision and call for a more "social Europe."

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Workers ranged from the automobile sector to textiles, telecoms, and steel.

These protests started spontaneously. Europe's union leaders have been scrambling to come up with a list of demands to match the anxiety on the streets and shop floors.

For European Union officials, the Renault affair has been a public relations nightmare. At a time when politicians are defending budget cuts needed to qualify for a single currency by 1999, they did not need a high-profile example of job destruction. Euro-philes had promised that a more united Europe would lead to greater prosperity.

Last week, the EU began to draft a "code of conduct" for international businesses to "avoid another Renault" and is setting up a high-level group to develop a strategy on restructuring the auto industry.

Protests began spontaneously on the factory floor in Vilvorde, after 3,152 workers were told they would be out of a job by the end of July. Protests quickly spread to other Renault factories in France and Spain, as well as Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, and Volvo sites in Belgium.

The first Euro-protest, in Paris on March 12, was in the spirit of what the French police call "bon enfant" - good natured, not dangerous. Protesters tossed eggs at the Renault headquarters, fire crackers at journalists, and ham sandwiches at passing motorists.

But Sunday's protest in Brussels signaled a broader base to the discontent. Delegations from Germany, Britain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia joined French and Belgian workers, who were the core of the first protest.

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All of Europe's main unions were represented, including the leaders of the four largest French unions, who until Sunday had never marched together. Protesters in Brussels carried signs such as, "Europe Without Frontiers, Yes. Europe Without Jobs, No." They called on the EU to create jobs and ensure that businesses consult with workers before closing plants.

For Belgian Ford worker Eddy Neyens, a social Europe is "a Europe with less than 18 million unemployed [the current unemployment estimate]."

"The good life is disappearing for normal working people. That's not progress, that's going back a century," says Mr. Neyens.

"Other auto companies are thinking about plant closures. If we let Renault get away with Vilvorde without a fight, it will go on. They'll say, 'Let's shut down a factory in Belgium, because it's a small country, and we'll have no trouble with them,' " adds Rudi Kennes, an Opel worker in Belgium.

Last week, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) called for sanctions against companies taking public money and then relocating jobs.

"The industrial strife at the Renault plant has once again highlighted the rift between financial Europe and social Europe. This unacceptable gap must be closed without delay," says the ETUC, Europe's equivalent of the AFL-CIO.

But critics say that Europe's move to create a more flexible work environment to face up to international competition is inevitable.

"These protests are an expression of fear and indignation, but in fact Renault and European governments have no choice," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a specialist on Europe for the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.

"Europe is caught up in intense international competition, and it is losing ground. The only possible way out is the American and British way of more flexibility. The public will have a hard time accepting this and may take it out on today's politicians, but in the end, there is no choice," he adds.

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