France's immigrant workers aim to leave with pride and $25,000
''Work or go home.'' That is the kind of statement one might expect to hear from France's National Front, a right-wing party that wants to send immigrant workers back to their countries.
But now the immigrants themselves are talking about leaving voluntarily. As strikers battled nonstriking workers at the Talbot auto plant last week, the racial overtones of the industrial dispute became more pronounced as groups of French workers taunted immigrant strikers.
The plight of these immigrants has become a key issue in negotiations among trade unions, the government, and management on a projected 1,905 layoffs at the plant.
The immigrants are demanding a right to return to their countries with compensation if they are laid off. The French government has agreed to consider this.
Seventy percent of the workers at the Talbot plant are foreign, and about 1, 500 of those to be laid off are immigrants. Most of them are unskilled assembly-line workers of black African or north African origin, and many were recruited from their villages in the late '60s and early '70s by the Talbot management, which was looking then for abundant cheap labor.
Now the immigrants feel they have been cheated. They charge that the accord the government negotiated with management and union leadership last month did not address their needs. Breaking ranks with union leadership in the communist-led Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), four immigrants decided to speak out.
''For the first time the immigrants want their voice heard outside the framework of any labor union,'' said Abderrazzak Dali, an Algerian who is one of the four.
Under the Dec. 17 accord, the government agreed to provide job retraining programs for laid-off workers. The immigrants, however, say retraining would do them no good. Many are illiterate and some do not speak French.
Rather than be unemployed, they would like to return to their home countries with compensation equal to the cost of retraining. They calculate that would be about $25,000, but they say they are willing to negotiate.
Immigrants regard the Tablot dispute as a test case. The government has said the Talbot accord could serve as a model for negotiations in other sectors of heavy industry that are trying to modernize and trim costs. Immigrant labor is heavily represented in many of those sectors, including the coal, steel, and auto industries.
''If we go out with our heads held high and our protest bears fruit, it will bring something to all the immigrants of France,'' Mr. Dali says. The immigrants' demand has put the CGT in an awkward position. It is the largest union at the Talbot plant and had been inclined to accept the government-negotiated agreement. But the immigrants' revolt has forced union leaders to reconsider their position. More than ever, observers are conscious of a split in the CGT between immigrants and Europeans.
The four immigrant spokesmen, all members of the CGT, say they are disillusioned with the union leadership. ''They don't consult us or consider what we think,'' said Omran Laroussi, a Moroccan.
The immigrants' desire to return home is also fueled by their fears of rising racial intolerance in France. ''It's better to go home,'' Dali said. ''In nine years here I was never invited once into a French home. The French have not wanted to help us.''
The idea of voluntary repatriation with compensation is not new to France. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's government offered immigrant workers about $2,500 each to go home, but few took up the offer.