As rebellious Brittany rises, France's government shudders

As rebellious Brittany rises, France's government shudders

Lampaul-Guimiliau (France) (AFP) - Francois Hollande insists the worst of the crisis is over in France and a brighter future is in tantalising reach, despite record unemployment, rising taxes and weak growth.

But the French leader's optimistic vision has been clouded by a growing nationwide feeling of despondency that has come to the fore in Brittany, a windswept agricultural region in the northwestern tip of the country beset by job cuts and factory closures.

The Socialist stronghold has drawn on a sense of identity similar to that of Scotland or Wales to mobilise people from all walks of life in big protests against the very government they helped vote in last year.

"Brittany is being left to die," says Patrice, a 65-year-old retiree who declines to give his surname, taking refuge from the pounding rain under the porch of a 14th-century church in Lampaul-Guimiliau in the hard-hit Finistere department.

This town of just 2,094 inhabitants has become one of the symbols of Brittany's struggling farm and food sector after a slaughterhouse that employed more than 770 employees shut down.

Yvonne Chariter, whose flower shop stands on the lone main road running through the rain-drenched town, says she fears for her business that was partly dependent on the nearby factory, its workers and their families.

"Just last month, I was thinking of employing someone else, but I'm not anymore as I don't even know where I'm going," the 47-year-old says glumly, surrounded by bouquets but with no customer in sight.

The closure of the Gad slaughterhouse after months of protests, strikes and negotiations was just one of a black series of layoff announcements that have shocked this remote department of Brittany.

Norwegian seafood group Marine Harvest has announced it will cut 400 jobs in Brittany, around 300 posts are threatened at the local Tilly-Sabco poultry firm -- and the list goes on in a region that once thrived on agribusiness.

Now, the sector is struggling in the face of steep, cheap foreign competition.

And last month, the government announced that a new nationwide environmental levy on trucks would take effect on January 1 next year, part of a raft of tax rises totalling some three billion euros ($4 billion) planned for 2014.

The agribusiness sector is heavily reliant on transport, and Brittany itself needs it more than most -- tucked away as it is in the far northwest -- so the so-called "ecotax" would only weigh further on an already struggling industry.

And so many in Brittany have risen up in anger, stealthily destroying radars set up in advance along roads to help collect the tax and taking to the streets in sometimes violent protests against the government.

"If everything had been going fine, the ecotax would have gone through without a hitch," Chariter notes.

Faced with the unrest, the government decided to suspend the new levy at the end of last month. Then on Friday, it announced more than one billion euros in emergency funds for the region, among other measures.

But protesters are still not pacified. Angry demonstrations continue, and a large rally is planned for November 30.

But why here in Brittany and not elsewhere? Other regions of France have been beset with factory closures and job cuts, but nowhere has mobilisation been as strong as in the remote region. And why is the government so worried?

The farm and food sector is one of the key components of France's trade balance. Brittany is the number one agricultural region in the country, which itself is the biggest agricultural producer in the European Union and one of the world's largest exporters.

"It's a concern because it's an important industrial sector that has more than 60,000 people working (in Brittany)," says Romain Pasquier, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Brittany is also traditionally Socialist. In last year's presidential elections that brought Hollande to power, more than 56 percent voted for him in the second round -- above the national average of 51.6 percent.

And of the 27 members of parliament who represent Brittany, 21 are Socialist.

"If Brittany starts to revolt -- and it is capable of doing so and has shown so in its history -- it can be a double sanction, a political and economic sanction for the government," says Pasquier.

The region also has a strong identity, and continuously lobbies for greater autonomy from the central government.

Thierry Jigourel, a journalist and author who specialises in the region, says that when he took part in a mass protest in the town of Quimper last weekend, he saw a sea of black and white Brittany flags and spotted just one French flag.

"Beyond the social demands... I had the impression I was at a Breton nationalist protest," he said.

Long isolated from the rest of the country and with a proud maritime tradition, Brittany has strong ties to other parts of Europe's Celtic fringe.

Although political nationalism is weak, efforts to assert a distinct Breton cultural identity enjoy broad support in the region and the Breton language has enjoyed a mini-revival in recent years.

The region, which joined the French kingdom in 1532, also has a history of standing up for itself.

"It's in our genes, we know our history," said one salesman in Brest, a city in Finistere, who did not want to give his name.

But for all the attention that has been lavished on Brittany's struggling agribusiness, some experts point to the promise of other sectors such as wind farming, hydropower and tourism.

Not far from Quimper lie factories belonging to the Bollore Group, a French multinational that is involved in transport, logistics, communication and other activities.

One of them, which makes batteries for electric cars, opened only recently and will eventually employ 350 to 400 people.

"For France to get by... it must finance innovation," says Didier Marginedes, senior vice president of the Bollore Group subsidiary BlueSolutions that runs the factory.