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European carmakers also are being hit hard by the financial crisis, and they've been forced to slash output in Germany and France. In the French car racing town of Le Mans, a Renault factory has halted production, at least temporarily. And that has people worried about both the town's future and its identity. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The name Le Mans is synonymous with car racing. Every June, the racing world turns its attention to the 24-hour test of endurance at the Le Mans speedway. A few miles from the famous racetrack, all is silent at the Renault plant, which has shut down production for two weeks. Union leader Michel Feuvrier says it's not just Renault employees who could be affected, but thousands of others who work for companies in the area which supply Le Mans' biggest employer.
MICHEL FEUVRIER: (Through Translator) Le Mans is very attached to the car industry, and these plant closures are really going to affect us if they continue into the new year. We don't feel it so much now because it's only the first weeks, but if it keeps up, you're going to see the car industry disappear from this area.
BEARDSLEY: New-car sales in France have dropped eight percent in the last year, and Renault shares have plummeted 77 percent. The French car industry employs 10 percent of the nation's workforce. Christelle Fromage has been with Renault 27 years. She designs chassis. Fromage believes Renault is using the crisis as an excuse to transfer jobs to plants in places like Romania where labor is cheaper.
CHRISTELLE FROMAGE: (Through Translator) Renault is doing well. But let's not exaggerate things. Of course, salaries are higher here in France than in places like Romania, but we're doing fine and our cars are well-priced.
BEARDSLEY: Forty-three-year-old Jacques Tessier is at home instead of working his shift on Renault's production line. He says watching coverage of the American presidential election on TV has helped take his mind off things.
JACQUES TESSIER: (Through Translator) I've put my life on hold waiting for the future to get better. There's really not much else to do. You have to try to be positive, but it's not easy.
BEARDSLEY: Tessier's worst fear is that Le Mans will go the way of Renault's plant in the town of Sandouville in Normandy. A thousand jobs are being cut there as part of Renault's plans to lay off 6,000 workers worldwide.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
BEARDSLEY: Last month, workers burned tires and fought with police during a visit to the Sandouville plant by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He wants the European Union to provide $50 billion to help European carmakers develop greener automobiles. But helping to restructure Renault is not necessarily the best way to help Le Mans, says Serge Danilo, editor of the town's principal newspaper, Le Maine Libre.
SERGE DANILO: (Through Translator) Le Mans is still an industrial city, so in any downturn, we're the first to lose jobs. We have to develop our service industries like other towns. Nantes and Rennes have done that, and they're doing better than we are.
BEARDSLEY: Many people in Le Mans doubt Renault will ever play as big a role in the city's economic life as it did in the past. Town officials are trying to attract new employers with infrastructure projects like the city's new light rail system. And to encourage innovation, Le Mans will stage a separate, 24-hour endurance race next year - this one for environmentally friendly cars. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Le Mans, France.
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