Latin Invasion – What Would Napoleon Say?

Starting 1807 Emperor Napoleon of France invaded the Iberian peninsular in a disastrous Peninsular War campaign — leaving behind him mayhem and the Napoleonic code – so might a role reversal 200 years later be a belated form of poetic justice?

Much to answer for? Napoléon Bonaparte by Andrea Appiani (1754–1817) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Much to answer for? Napoléon Bonaparte by Andrea Appiani (1754–1817) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier still of course — beginning 1796 — Napoleon had conquered what is today northern Italy and Venice also storing up plenty of bitter blood.

Thus some might be tempted to ask, is there is any wonder that under the cloak of EU single market freedoms, the sun-belt Latins are turning the tables and presently hotfooting it into France even though their motives could not be more dissimilar.

For the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians have been surging across the borders in a desperate bid to ensure their small construction and transport enterprises survive under the onslaught of an economic disaster inflicted by greed-driven global financiers and their complicit political midgets, and which shows no signs of any let-up.

Revenge in a continent with centuries of history and even longer memories was possibly always going to be a long time coming. Nevertheless locals are not taking it lying down.

Ironically the French election campaign season earlier in the year was crammed with highly charged and calamitous cries about the danger of immigration and talk of ‘invasion’ undermining culture and jobs. But the target then was religious minorities not the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian firms and sole traders now arousing the ire of small and medium-sized local businesses.

The ongoing Eurozone recession has decimated Iberian economies and made severe inroads into parts of Italy as well – more than 50% youth unemployment in Greece and Spain, more than 30% in Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal and Slovakia and a European average of 22% according to recent Eurostat figures.

Construction firms and road haulage firms in France are demanding action as reports multiply of damage to their sector from Latin businesses starved in their own devastated economies and undercutting their French counterparts in the south-West and centre of the country.

Labour tensions are rising in France as the full impact of the crisis hits vulnerable industries with PSA, the biggest French car maker announcing 8,000 job losses and the closing of its Aulnay plant north of Paris.

According to a report in Le Journal des Entreprises construction companies have noticed the expanding emergence of Spanish companies bidding for work in Aquitaine in the south-West. “For a year, more and more construction sites have been taken over by Spaniards, said Bruno Garabos, president of the French Building Federation FFBFédération française du bâtiment in the Gironde. “I can understand their situation: turnover of construction companies in Spain and Portugal fell 11% in 2011, and is expected to fall by 12% in 2012. It makes sense that they are looking for markets on the other side of the Pyrenees. The problem is that French company margins are shrinking. This competition, which is not always fair, may further aggravate our difficulties. “

If Bruno Garabos is concerned about the  allegedly less than scrupulous approach taken by the competition, he admits that labour inspection controls on construction sites are problematical. “While of course French law applies across France how do we check if a Spanish labourer is working 35  or 50 hours on a site? The controls are not sufficiently frequent to ensure everyone is properly registered.”

Bruno Garabos also denounced the hypocrisy of project owners, including those in the public sector, who he said, ignore the working practices of these competitors because their bids are so attractively priced.

A separate report claimed that the lower prices were only possible because many of the Latin “insurgents” were less than rigorous about working hours, social security contributions, taxes, invoices, VAT  and national minimum wages rules in France.  All these accusations have been strenuously rebutted by some of the larger Spanish firms involved and which insist they are competing legitimately cross-border just as any other European enterprise is permitted to do under EU rules.

Pascal Bertrand, regional president of the Federation of property developers, disputed the complaints raised by Bruno Garabos. He told Le Journal des Entreprises : “Some developers rely on foreign companies, but it remains the exception. Sometimes the labour pool is  Spanish and Portuguese but this is because of a shortage of  French labourers.”

Iberian Peninsula

Where Napoleon stirred it all up –  Iberian Peninsula (Credit: DBduo Photography)

Meanwhile according to a report in SudQuest the FNTP-National Federation of Public Works  warns that “the position of public works construction companies in France has declined rapidly since the beginning of the year”. The public works sector will shed “at least 6,000 permanent jobs in 2012,” it said. The claims were backed up by Patrick Bernasconi, FNTP chairman: “The economic crisis has led companies in Spain, Portugal and Italy to make aggressive bids in tenders in France offering unreasonably low prices. Project owners sometimes have little regard for the conditions under which the tender work is performed”, he said calling for more controls. He also called on the Labour Department to investigate  ‘”unfair competition”.

In a related report SudQuest quoted concerns raised by Jean-Marc Joanteguy, president of the 400-member Basque Country Painter and Decorator Trades Union.

He said that the blame did not lie with the Spanish companies “which have won contracts worth millions of euros through public procurement”, but rather with “the French authorities who have let the situation become gangrenous”.

He said the loss of the contracts mentioned above represented “approximately 120,000 hours of work lost to us and this creates serious tensions. We must fight to survive”.

He denounced  ‘grey areas’ that he said existed around the hiring of workers on the Spanish Basque coast. “We commissioned a report from the Bordeaux social security which revealed many irregularities. But the government prefers to ignore these”.  His claims were however rebutted by Jean Baptiste Sallaberry, Mayor of Hendaye. who said “before entrusting a project to a company, we ensure its operations are fully compliant. “

Aware of the growing unease however George Labazée the Socialist President of the Conseil Général says he plans a close review of  the “regulatory framework” governing cross-border work. Is there healthy competition or is it social dumping? To find out, we will lift up the concrete slab that overhangs the construction world,” he said.

Meanwhile French road hauliers are also up in arms about the liberalisation of cabotage due in 2014.

Spanish road transport companies already operating on French roads are de facto acting as if the cabotage law had already been relaxed, they claim. Currently Spanish, Portuguese and Italian trucks can carry three loads back from France as part of a trip originating in their home countries.

“The Spaniards, whose domestic consumption has collapsed, are trying to offset their problems by increasing the loads thay carry under cabotage before crossing the border” says Francois-Xavier Mintegui, president of UR the European Hauliers Organization.

Jerome Bessiere, regional delegate of  FNTR  the National Federation of Motor Carriers is concerned about what recent changes in  Spanish labour laws will do to their share of road haulage.  “We (the French) will become even less competitive. We are already suffering from differences in payroll, driver time availability and the price of diesel! ” he said.

Ah yes Emperor Napoleon may yet have much more to answer for.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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