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Amazon shutdown in France puts squeeze on Macron government

Pressure is piling on Emmanuel Macron’s government after Amazon decided to shut down warehouses in France | Gonzalo Fuentes/EPA-EFE

The French president’s allies have been sharply critical of Amazon. The shutdown puts them in a tricky spot.

Amazon’s decision to shut down warehouses in France following a court order is piling pressure on President Emmanuel Macron’s government to find a way out of a dispute that has disrupted deliveries to millions living under a strict lockdown.

The e-commerce giant announced Thursday that it is taking the rare step of temporarily shutting down its warehouses in France after a court ordered it to stop delivery of nonessential goods until a risk assessment of the company’s health and safety measures has been carried out.

Amazon’s top executive in France said the firm had no choice but to proceed with the shutdown because of the ambiguity of an order that did not specify which goods qualify as “essential,” and due to the risk of being fined €1 million per day in the event of a breach.

“I don’t know whether a nail-clipper is essential — same thing for a condom. The ambiguity forces us not to take any risks,” Frederic Duval, Amazon’s chief in France, said Thursday, adding that his company planned to appeal.

Trade unions rejected that argument. In conversations with POLITICO, representatives said the move was designed to make an example out of France at a time when Amazon faces union opposition at warehouses from Spain to Staten Island, New York.

Stéphane Enjalran, a spokesperson for the Solidaires group of unions, added that Amazon had balked when workers tried to exercise a so-called “right of withdrawal” — an instrument in French labor law that allows workers to withdraw from work situations in case of a serious threat to health and safety. “Amazon has too much to lose in terms of public image to further the fight against the workers,” he said.“Amazon is not used to negotiating with the unions. They refuse to do that in almost every place they operate except where they’re legally required. The idea that they’d be accountable to a third party that would say ‘actually, you haven’t done enough’ — it’s just shocking to them,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI global union.

But while unions may be crying victory, the situation poses a serious challenge to Macron, who campaigned on making France a “startup nation” and personally cut the ribbon at the opening of Amazon’s fifth warehouse in France in 2017.

While his government has repeatedly singled out Amazon for criticism over labor conditions and taxes, ministers may be wary of irking a company that employs some 10,000 people at a time when unemployment is ballooning amid one of Europe’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns. Amazon has said it would continue deliveries to France — but send orders via warehouses in Italy with significant delays.

An appeals court will ultimately decide whether Amazon can deliver nonessential goods in France. But the underlying dispute is a matter for the labor ministry, whose inspectors combed through Amazon’s sites, and the government is commonly involved in high-profile labor disputes.

Silent treatment

So far, however, ministers have been reluctant to speak up. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who in late March accused Amazon of putting “unacceptable” pressure on workers, skirted the issue when he was interviewed on TV late Thursday.

On a separate TV panel, Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud declined to discuss the court order directly, instead underscoring that Amazon sites had undergone numerous labor inspections and calling on “other employers” to “immediately put in place” emergency sanitation measures. Amazon has detailed a number of measures aimed at protecting workers from the coronavirus, including temperature checks and protective equipment.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s shutdown in France is prompting outrage on both sides of the political spectrum.

While the left-leaning Libération newspaper featured a photograph of a grinning Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, on its front page next to a caption that accused the firm of “not caring much for workers’ health,” a commentator in the business daily Les Echos wrote that the French justice system is “weakening the e-commerce giant” by ordering it to stop delivering non-essential goods.

Writer Bernard Henri-Levy also weighed in, tweeting that a union had brought on the shutdown by complaining to labor inspectors that Amazon had tried to deliver books while under orders to send out only essential goods.

Such criticism puts Macron in a tough spot, with ministers scrambling behind closed doors to avoid a bigger fallout with Amazon. While the president has championed big tech companies including Amazon paying more taxes in the countries where they make their money and wants Europe to become more independent from Silicon Valley giants, he also wants to cast himself as a job-creating, business-friendly president — especially in the wake of a pandemic that is battering the global economy, with the French economy contracting by 6 percent in the first quarter of 2020.

According to the court order, published online, Amazon will be able to resume delivering nonessential goods if it fulfils a risk assessment and implements safety measures across its warehouses.

In the dispute with Amazon, Macron’s government will also be at pains to avoid being perceived as bashing a foreign company when a range of local e-commerce players, from FNAC to Darty, are still operating normally.

So far, ministers are tiptoeing around the explosive shutdown news — perhaps because they hope for a speedy resolution.

According to the court order, published online, Amazon will be able to resume delivering nonessential goods if it fulfils a risk assessment and implements safety measures across its warehouses. The court order itself does not force Amazon to close its warehouses down.

The online retail giant has yet to announce when it will reopen, but says it has started a risk evaluation with unions and workers.

According to Les Echos, a hearing in Amazon’s appeal is to take place as early as April 21.

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