Political Film Review #595


Directed by Stéphane Brizé as if a documentary, At War (En Guerre) begins when workers at a Perrin Industries factory in southwest France are informed that the car part plant will soon close, and 1,100 employees will be terminated. They soon learn that the reason for the closure is not that the factory is unprofitable but instead that a new factory in Romania will make far more profits for the company because Romanian workers will accept much lower pay. Two years earlier, the workers had agreed to accept lower wages and benefits in order to the keep the factory open, but now that deal is void as if never a true contract.

Laurent Amédéo (played by Vincent Lindon), head of the workers’ union, is outraged and begins a strike that will last several months, keeping the factory idle. Efforts to negotiate with the local plant CEO (Jacques Borderie) prove fruitless, so the French government is asked to mediate, and Amédéo insists on continuing the strike until a meeting is held with the CEO of the parent company (Martin Hauser), the German multinational Dimke.

During the strike, Amédéo undertakes several tactics beyond picketing: A court case is filed, but the union loses. Stand-ins occur at the local plant, and the strikers persuade workers at another Perrin factory to join the strike.

Meanwhile, Perrin tries to provide justifications for the closure, calls upon police to oust those involved in stand-ins, and offers lucrative termination settlements for the workers. Some union members differ from Amédéo, preferring cash to protest, though he and his supporters prevail. Indeed, much of the film consists of vigorous argumentation scenes, the most eloquent of which are the union’s counterarguments to the company’s profit calculations. When the union finally meets Hauser, with a French government official chairing the meeting in Paris, Amédéo has lined up a company that has made an offer to buy the plant. At the meeting Hauser refuses to sell, presumably wanting to move parts of the factory to the new plant in Romania. After he leaves to his waiting limousine, embittered workers topple the vehicle.

The climax of the film then descends into film noir territory instead of the expected conclusion—that the French government could easily nationalize the factory, then sell to the company that made the offer at the Paris meeting, compensating Dimke with the amount paid by the successor company. The government’s bureaucratic response (and cowardice in dealing with multinationals) to the strike is doubtless why such a solution was not part of the plot. Even so, the Political Film Society has nominated At War for best film on human rights of 2019.  MH