Jan. 7 - Hardline trade unionists at a tire plant in northern France release two executives after holding them against their will for over 24 hours in an attempt to extract better layoff terms for 1,170 workers. The crisis comes as U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew makes France his first port of call on a Europe mini-tour. Ivor Bennett reports on the growing economic crisis in a country where unions still hold sway.
It's a familiar flashpoint in France's troubled industrial relations. The Goodyear tyre factory in Amiens - the site of countless stand-offs in 2009, and now the latest so-called boss-napping. 2 executives against their will for over 24 hours, in a bid by workers for bigger payouts ahead of a thousand planned layoffs. It couldn't have come at a worse time for Francois Hollande. A socialist President - any crackdown could lose him key blue-collar voters. But NOT pushing through labour reforms could see France fall further behind - its economy in desperate need of a fillip. December saw manufacturing activity shrink at its fastest pace in seven months, while the rest of Europe improved almost across the board. With unemployment nearing record highs, others are starting to worry. IG's Alastair McCaig. SOUNDBITE (English) ALASTAIR MCCAIG, MARKET ANALYST, IG, SAYING: "I think there is undoubtedly some real fears growing globally as to the state of the French economy and the lack of progress as far as the recovery is concerned. And the liability that it might have in regards to the whole of the EU in slowing down that whole process." The situation's prompted a visit by European Commission President Manuel Barroso - some EU officials questioning the pace and depth of France's reforms. Fears have stretched across the pond too. US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is also in town - holding talks with both Hollande and Finance minister Pierre Moscovici. SOUNDBITE (English) JACK LEW, US TREASURY SECRETARY, SAYING: "France has taken some notable steps to sustain demand while making structural reforms that have medium and long-term impact. I'm confident the government remains committed to doing what it takes to foster recovery, and it has a number of important strengths going into 2014." His comments in public may have been upbeat. But in private, they're expected to be very different - the US concerned France's problems could hold back one of its major trading partners, Robert Parker at Credit Suisse. (SOUNDBITE) (English): ROBERT PARKER, SENIOR ADVISER, CREDIT SUISSE, SAYING: "I think his conversations in France are going to be around you know the structural impediments towards French growth, and one of the factors at the core of that of course is the problems we have with French levels of competitiveness." In some ways Hollande's got nothing to lose. According to polls, he's already the most unpopular French President in modern history. But in a country famous for the power of its unions, the necessary reforms will be tough to deliver. Socialist or not.