AMID the squat cargo depots and service stations behind Paris's Orly Airport, one building has the marks of a frontier outpost. Two blackened garbage cans bear the remains of the fire sentinels kept burning on rainy nights. And a row of Air France trucks, festooned with banners and angry graffiti, barricades the entrance.
In the tense atmosphere following October's massive strikes at Air France, the continuing job action by employees who prepare the meals aboard Air France, Delta, and other flights is being ignored. Yet the 32-day occupation of the catering headquarters is the most radical job action in the history of the national airline.
At stake is ``subsidiarization,'' the sale of non-core activities to a private or semiprivate affiliate. In this case, Air France's meal-preparation activity and the 500 employees who perform it are to be transferred to a newly created subsidiary.
The repercussions of this sale extend beyond its effects on one isolated segment of the heavily indebted Air France group. ``Its wider significance,'' says Olivier Real, one of the leaders of the ``Committee of Ten'' elected by striking workers, ``is that it's the beginning of the subsidiarization, the privatization, of other company activities - with the result of undermining the contract conditions won by workers in those sectors.''
In fact, the importance of such transactions extends well beyond Air France. ``A back-door means of privatizing large public-sector industries,'' is how Jean-Pierre Jobard, professor of corporate financing at the Sorbonne in Paris, characterizes subsidiarization.
According to Air France spokesmen, the move has ``nothing to do with privatization.'' Still, one of the primary motivations cited for the transfer is that it will allow an influx of fresh capital.
At Air France, meal preparation was one of several activities on line to be subsidiarized, as part of the major belt-tightening plan that touched off October's strikes. The plan was suspended, and according to company officials the list is on hold, except catering.
``We're the trial balloon,'' says union leader Philippe Allain. ``This is the first time that employees are being sold along with an Air France activity.'' Air France Vice President Francois Elden confirms the matter's importance to the company directorate. ``It does have something of a test value,'' he says. The transfer of the catering activity is not a means of cutting labor costs, Mr. Elden insists. ``That's not the object of the exercise.''
But Mr. Real got a different answer when he tried to pin management down on the issue of working conditions, during an all-night session last week.
``But let's be honest,'' says Transport Division chief Alain Guetrot, after a lecture on the difference between scheduled hours and worked hours. The price of a tray won't be reduced from 30 francs to 20 francs by divine intervention, he argues.
Since Air France's record losses - estimated at 7.5 billion francs ($1.28 billion) for 1993 alone - are really only an extreme case of difficulties faced by a vast number of French public and private-sector industries, the sale of the catering department carries the weight of precedent.
Employees, however, reject the justification. They emphasize the affect of external forces, such as the Gulf war, on the company's finances. ``Why should the workers have to pay for the previous management's poor business choices, and political decisions, like airline deregulation that we were opposed to from the start?'' asked one union leader after a meeting with Air France management Dec. 13.
On Dec. 14, a truce between catering employees and Air France management was broken when private security agents with dogs entered the building - a gesture employees bitterly contrast with the image of dialogue Air France's new president has tried to project, as he opens negotiations on a new economic strategy for the company.