Throughout the ages, men have fought over gold, beautiful women, trade routes, high ground--virtually every imaginable cause--but only in France this week did men actually come to blows over cheese.
With a military precision befitting a war, hardened former Foreign Legion paratroop officer Fernand Loustau liberated 750,000 ripening Camembert cheeses from the clutches of sit-in strikers at a processing plant at Isigny, a veritable shrine of fine Normandy butter and cheese.
Spearheaded by 37 other former paratroopers, the post-midnight attack Monday took the strike pickets by surprise. That allowed another 150 or so company workers from other plants to dispatch all but 40,000 of the Camemberts in 15 giant rented trucks to the various outlets of the struck Besnier-Caludel company. Company officials said the liberated Camemberts were worth about $500,000.
Walkie-talkies, whistles to coordinate the attack, tear gas, brass knuckles (known as "American fists" in France), whips, sticks, pistols firing blanks, were either used or in evidence, according to eyewitnesses, and Loustau dispatched men to key crossroads to cut the town of 3,500 inhabitants off from the rest of the world for six hours. Before they left, the raiders ripped out the plant's telephones and turned off the electricity to ensure that the remaining cheeses could not be salvaged and sold by the strikers.
Aside from its military aspects, the Camembert commando caper illustrated the mood bordering on guerrilla warfare unleashed between labor and management by the Socialist government's often seemingly sloppy execution of key reforms.
At stake at the cheese factory was an ambiguously worded government ordinance authorizing a fifth paid holiday week and the reduction of the legal work week from 40 to 39 hours in partial fulfillment of a pledge to achieve a 35-hour schedule by 1985.
No sooner had the ordinance been announced in mid-January than strikes spread across the land as workers demanded--and management opposed--guaranteeing the same pay for less work.
Originally, the government guaranteed that only the relatively small number of workers making the legal minimim wage would benefit. But at Isigny the Camembert workers, who already worked only 38 hours and 20 minutes a week, wanted to slice another hour off their week and draw the same pay.
The owners stood firm. Talks broke down. Back pay was withheld and on Feb. 5 the workers occupied the plant. They refused to release the ripening cheeses and even threatened to sell them to make up for their January wages, which the company refused to pay.
With the prospect of thousands of succulent Camemberts going bad--despite union insistence that they were good for another week--plant manager Bernard Aubert remembered his old Army buddy, Loustau.
Loustau, who runs a somewhat mysterious watchman's company of a kind often denounced for union- busting by the left, said he decided to "help a friend" free of charge.
"I belong to a group of people," said Loustau, a veteran of the 3rd Foreign Legion parachute regiment who fought in the Algerian war a generation ago, "who have a certain idea of freedom."
Aubert chimed in that "I was only taking what was mine" and repeated, "There was nothing illegal."
Nonetheless, Loustau was charged by a magistrate in nearby Caen with sequestering a person or persons for less than 24 hours, an offense that can be punished by imprisonment from one month to two years.
Elsewhere in France, workers and management were arguing about coffee breaks and whether well-protected professions such as journalists should now add another week to their eight-week annual leave in the name of "acquired rights" and thus keep their margin of advantage over less fortunate workers.
The government dithered for weeks, largely because it designed the reform to provide more jobs for the country's more than 2 million unemployed, not to guarantee better pay for less work.
Labor Minister Jean Auroux went on record as saying that workers "cannot have butter and money from butter at the same time" and added that there should be "an exchange between the reduction of work and the reduction of revenue." At the other end of the spectrum was Henri Krasucki, who as the new head of the communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor, pushed for a "38-hour work week right away."
Increasingly the Communist tactic is to have their four ministers in the government go along with their Socialist senior partners while encouraging Krasucki to snipe at the administration from his union position.
Faced with these tensions, President Francois Mitterrand yesterday announced that "no worker should fear for his purchasing power" because of the 39-hour-week legislation.
But even that phrase was deemed ambiguous by French political analysts. They noted that the Socialist president had once again gone against the moderates in his own party and trade union and agreed with the Communist demands.
In Isigny, the cheese company officials blamed their troubles on the Communists and their union friends.