French workers in the age of neoliberalism

In post-industrial eastern France, the neoliberal era has been a long class war waged from above. In his book 'Of Fangs and Talons', reviewed here by Conrad Landin, award-winning novelist Nicolas Mathieu portrays how the destruction of working-class communities has fed cynicism and despair.

Review by Conrad Landin

Laurent, a minor character in Nicolas Mathieu’s Of Fangs and Talons, was once “a show-off and a hopeless romantic, who loved B-roads and drunken weekends with friends.” That was in 1988, and in the next decade he “began designing massive supermarkets,” making the transition from liberal to neoliberal. “In those countries still recovering from a Communist hangover, he would build transparent towers, design shopping centres, trace a future of vegetable aisles, promotional sales and strip lights.”

What is termed “progress” in mainstream society is, in the novels of Nicolas Mathieu, almost always cause for an angry cynicism. Laurent has fared far better from globalization than most of these characters, but he is still far from content. His love life hits the rocks when his wife, Rita, a labor inspector, “remembered she was free and decided to leave him.” It was only then that Laurent, “who’d always been a nice boy, if a little slow on the uptake, had understood.”

Mathieu’s And Their Children After Them, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt as well as rave reviews in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and other English-language papers upon its translation last year, was a lyrical journey through eastern France over four summers in the 1990s, as a cast of teenagers discover globalization’s deceits for themselves. His first novel — published in French in 2014 but only now translated into English by Sam Taylor as Of Fangs and Talons — is also set nearby, in the region’s Vosges Mountains. But in this book, industrial decline is not just a backdrop but center stage.

The Lives of Men

Were it not for its distinct whiff of Gauloises smoke and workplace violence, the novel’s premise could easily be transposed to the car factories of Detroit or the coalfields of England’s County Durham. “Trade unionism was not a vocation for Martel,” we learn of the tattooed protagonist. “Until the army, he’d never wanted to join anything.” But at the Velocia car parts factory, in Mathieu’s typically dispassionate way, he “somehow found himself getting elected as secretary to the Works Council.”

When the factory is threatened with closure, he uses his astute knowledge of labor law to throw obstacles in management’s way. But despite his past record of success, this time all he can hope for is delay. And he needs it: heavily indebted thanks to the exorbitant charges levied by his mother’s nursing home, Martel has embezzled Works Council funds. Abandoned by the regular economy, he and his colleague Bruce — a bodybuilding drug dealer infatuated with Martel — take a different kind of commission in the hope of a hefty windfall to settle the union books.

The pair agree to kidnap a trafficked sex worker from Strasbourg’s red-light district. It is an outlandish plot twist — but it seems apt 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 onto “the lives of men,” it is as if they are asserting their remaining structural power — that of men over women. When Victoria, the victim of their kidnap, escapes and (in another implausible development) is taken in by labor inspector Rita, we glimpse her own fears and dreams. Meanwhile, the criminal underworld is catching up with Martel and Bruce — not just Bruce’s friends the Benbareks, but the frustrated Russian gangster Victor Tokarev, too. Crucially, the redundant workers’ plan has not accounted for Victoria’s agency as a fellow human being — and as events spiral out of control, they realize there is no going back.

It is control, Martel discovers, that is most impossible to maintain in the modern world. He sees trade unionism as not “a question of justice or truth, but of saving your mates’ interests.” But, in his ideals at least, Martel’s notion of the “perks” of being a shop steward is steeped in a sense of class equality. He enjoys “particularly the chance to speak to management as equals, as if the disparity in payslips no longer mattered.”

Meanwhile, labor inspector Rita is fighting her own version of the same battle. On the face of it, she is doing so more consciously — but Mathieu is not a writer who creates heroes of principle. When she crashes her car — like its owner, a retro model struggling in the modern world — Rita threatens the garage with a workplace inspection if the repair charge is not drastically reduced. “Rita wouldn’t have minded getting her share of the cake either,” we are told. “She took no pleasure in being holier-than-thou. She didn’t hate money. But — and this was her big problem — all this stuff still made her angry. At her age, she still found herself raging against the state of the world.”

As a prologue set in Algeria in 1961 explains, “each man had his martyrs; each found ways to justify his crimes.” Bruce’s grandfather, a veteran of the far-right OAS (a paramilitary network led by dissident generals which attempted to block Algerian independence) has passed on his damage to his children and grandchildren, while Rita’s family fled fascism in 1930s Spain. The references to these two wars are more than added color — each of Mathieu’s loners and misfits is caught between the imperative of confronting brutal corporate forces head-on, as in Spain, and their own failure to comprehend the changing world around them, like the pieds noirs, white settlers in Algeria.

Redundant

Mathieu’s depiction of the French workplace isn’t free of cliche. The male-dominated workforce speaks in lewd, sexist language about the female HR boss. The CGT — the union confederation historically affiliated to the Communist Party — is described as “hawkish, extreme.” Workplace militants, indeed, are referred to condescendingly. But what distinguishes the author from his few contemporaries who have attempted to write about unions is his remarkable grasp of the architecture of industrial relations — both in figurative and literal terms. This includes even the relations between the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) and the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) and FO (Force Ouvrière) federations:

"Now Velocia’s last three temporary workers stood in front of the coffee machine, watching the meeting of the factory’s permanent staff, to which they had not been invited. They could see men sitting on chairs and cardboard boxes, with Martel standing behind his metal desk. For now, the Works’ Council secretary was listening, not speaking. From time to time, one of the men would start yelling and they could hear the muffled echoes of his rage. Everybody got his turn to speak, and waves seemed to pass through the assembled workers. A hand was raised, several mouths opened. They saw Léon Michel get to his feet: he’d been there thirty years, so of course he would have plenty to say about it. Pierrot Cunin, who’d been a delegate back in the seventies, the kind of man who knows everything and understands nothing, bellowing in his thick accent that going on strike was the only solution. The temps tried to work out who was saying what, but their view was blocked by the electoral posters that covered the glass walls. Standing together with the CGT. The CFDT is here to protect you. The FO is on your side."

This glass office was originally constructed for the sake of management surveillance — but the air of mystery that surrounds their “secret meetings in a goldfish bowl” gives the workers an empowering, and yet illusory, sense of autonomy. It is located in the oldest part of the factory: “Their predecessors had fought and slaved there. Men had died.” It is the workers’ spatial surroundings and institutional history, as well as their jobs and union activity, which has allowed them to maintain “the lives of men” even when the demands of profit come in place of their basic dignity. For all Mathieu’s cynicism, he never suggests the dispossessed should simply accept their fate: as he makes so apparent in the sepia-tinted settings of And Their Children After Them, even his most compromised characters have too much vitality and potential for that. “Capital had won in the end,” the aging militant Cunin concedes: “what grieved him most was not being able to pass on the torch.”

As redundancy forces the Velocia workers to catch up with the world around them, Mathieu offers some humorous, yet bleak, warnings of what this world has to offer. As with Laurent and Cunin, these are delivered in brief digressions into the minds of minor characters. A hired thug beats up Martel and then informs him that “with globalisation, being self-employed was not like how it had been before” — his own line of work gives him “an 80 to 100 per cent gross profit margin.” Further up the gangster pecking order, Victor Tokarev keeps reading the same magazine article about a business school graduate who has sacrificed his life for his work. “That young guy trapped in a multinational corporation, that was him. He’d sacrificed everything — his life, his time, his energy — to succeed, to become someone. And yet in the end he slept two hours a night, bit his nails down to the quick and expected the sky to fall in every time his phone rang. And all for what? He’d forgotten.”

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