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Hollande's jobs strategy challenged by transport authority's call centre relocation

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CITIZENSIDE / NICOLAS KOVARIK

As a deluge of job losses hits France, François Hollande’s government has been embarrassed by the decision of a Socialist-controlled regional council to scrap a contract with two French call-centres in favour of one in Morocco. The case could become a symbol of the Socialists’ difficulties in tackling economic crisis in a globalised economy.


The mainstream right-wing opposition UMP and the far-right Front National are crying “hypocrite” over the decision by the Ile de France regional transport network, Stif, to switch its customer relations helpline to a call centre in Morocco.

Stif is the public transport network covering Paris and the surrounding region, with a population of over 12 million people.

Webhelp, the company that has run the line up until now, did so from two call centres, one in Fontenay-le-Comte in the western Vendée region, the other in Saint-Avold in Moselle near the German border.

It provided work for 80 of the 200 employees at the two sites, it says.

Many companies, including Webhelp, operate call centres in French-speaking countries like Morocco where labour is cheaper, just as British and American helplines are often run from India or other former British colonies.

In June Industrial Recovery Minister Arnaud Montebourg called on telecoms operators to repatriate call centres based abroad and lashed companies that shed jobs in France and relocate abroad during his campaign to become his party’s presidential candidate.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

This month the government flirted with protectionism in its response to PSA Peugeot-Citroën’s announcement of 8,000 job losses, calling on the European Union to look into whether South Korean carmakers were guilty of unfair competition.

French unemployment is heading remorselessly for the three million mark and companies are lining up to declare redundancies, while the eurozone crisis drags on and world economic prospects are anything but rosy.

The UMP, which is struggling to recover from presidential and parliamentary election defeats, has seized on the bad news. French labour costs are too high, UMP leaders claim, and the Socialists’ economic strategy undermines French companies’ competitiveness.

But, since they’ve only been out of power for less than three months, their argument has so far failed to convince the French electorate of the error of its ways.

Indeed, the Socialists not only point out that they are still dealing with the legacy of former UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, they have also accused some employers of postponing the announcement of bad news until after the presidential election so as to help the right-wing the incumbent.

For the UMP, the Stif decision has the advantage of being a decision by a Socialist regional authority while a Socialist-led government is in power.

Parliamentary elections 2012

Former Sarkozy minister Valérie Pécresse, who is the opposition leader on the Ile de France regional council, accused the Hollande’s party of being two-faced on jobs and called on the council’s chair, Jean-Paul Huchon, to “look into legal channels to reopen this market with the intention of maintaining the jobs in France”.

A clearly embarrassed Hollande on Friday exhorted local authorities to keep employment in France wherever legally possible, while declaring his opposition to “protectionist one-upmanship”.

And Montebourg says he will meet Huchon soon to discuss the case.

But it may not be that easy.

Huchon claims that the choice was dictated by European trade directives which do not allow preferential treatment for companies in a country “or even in Europe”.

Cue the far-right Front National (FN), whose change in image under new leader Marine Le Pen saw an increased emphasis on issues like jobs, blaming immigration, globalisation, the European Union and a supposedly remote Parisian elite all in equal measure for mass unemployment and deprivation in deindustrialised areas of France.

“The Socialists are plunging into obscenity,” declared FN rising star Steeve Briois. “It’s all very well for Arnaud Montebourg to attack relocation of call centres abroad, his Parisian comrades don’t seem to be to worried by it.”

Webhelp has slammed Stif for its decision, saying that it will mean the loss of 80 jobs.

The company’s response has raised eyebrows in the webworld.

Founded in 2000, its first call centre was in Romania. In 2003 it opened a centre in Morocco and did not have a site in France until 2004.

Of its 10,000 employees, 6,300 are in Morocco, 600 in Romania and 3,000 in France.