Taking Your Boss Hostage Just Got Harder in France

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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French President Francois Hollande is, supposedly, a Socialist, for whom equality is the most important of the three French revolutionary goals. Yet it was on his watch that the police finally interfered with what has become something of a tradition among French workers: the taking of their bosses as hostages in labor negotiations.

Boss-napping, as the practice is known, hit the headlines again this week when workers unhappy with the closing of a Goodyear tire factory in Amiens took the production manager and personnel chief hostage in an effort to negotiate better severance packages. On Jan. 7, police officers entered the factory and told union leaders that they would be going to prison unless the bosses were released.

French workers are creative in protecting their jobs. In 2009, the employees of a German-owned camper-van factory in Alsace started dismantling a van each day, trying to force the management to negotiate on its decision to close the facility. Workers at a haulage hub threatened to pour 8,000 liters of a toxic fuel additive into a Seine tributary, and ball-bearing makers set fire to their machinery. Entire staffs have gone on hunger strikes.

And then there are the boss-nappings, which have occurred at the facilities of 3M, Sony, Siemens, Caterpillar and many French companies. Graeme Hayes, a researcher at the U.K.'s Aston University, counted 32 incidents in France from 2008 to 2010.

The owner of FNAC, a multimedia store chain, was held in a Paris taxi for an hour to force him to negotiate with workers he wanted to lay off. Others were typically "sequestered" for as much as 24 hours.

French union activists know the law. Holding a person illegally for more than a week is punishable by 20 years in prison, 30 if the person suffers physical damage. Holding a manager for less than a week can mean five years in prison or a $100,000 fine.

Workers, however, have gotten away with boss-napping since the late 1940s, when the first incidents took place in France. No violence occurred and managers were generally released quickly, so authorities chose to avoid all-out conflict with the powerful unions. Only in the public sector have French authorities never tolerated such actions.

"The non-intervention of the police and absence of effective legal complaints in the private sector is indicative: Sequestration is tacitly understood as an industrial process rather than a criminal act," Hayes noted.

France is a traditionally paternalistic state. Just as a child throws a tantrum to get parents' attention, so French workers resort to radical action to draw the authorities into labor disputes. Right-wing former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was vehemently opposed to boss-nappings, did nothing about them. Left-winger Hollande broke with the practice by sending in the cops.

The Amiens factory is an old labor hot spot. Goodyear announced a full year ago that it would be closing the plant. Workers have been protesting ever since. Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg sought buyers for the factory but suffered a setback when U.S.-based Titan, which had taken over Goodyear's agricultural tire business, refused to have anything to do with the Amiens workforce. Titan CEO Maurice Taylor told Montebourg in a letter that the "so-called workers" were paid high wages but only work three hours a day: "They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three."

The Titan CEO had a point. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly compensation cost for a manufacturing worker in France was 10 percent higher than in the U.S., while the per-hour output in France was 24 percent lower. France's socialist, unionist culture and a long tradition of valuing life quality higher than success at work do appear to lower the nation's competitiveness.

Still, Hollande doesn't seem to have a consistent strategy. The most unpopular president in France's history is telling workers they should give up their traditional radical negotiation methods, but doing nothing about the oppressive tax climate that is holding back French business. As of 2014, corporate taxes in France received another boost, to 38 percent. Payroll taxes are among the highest in the world -- one reason French workers' relative productivity is so low. To a large extent, the government's nearsighted policies, and not French workers' laziness, is responsible for the factory closures that have caused so much strife.

Goodyear's Amiens employees have retained their radical creativity despite the police interference. They have substituted "Bad" for "Good" in the company name on signs. They are burning tires in front of the plant and preparing to occupy it. Taylor may call them "stupid" and "crazy," but in fact their vehemence sends the correct message to Hollande's government: Make it possible to do business. That would mean cutting both spending and tax rates, something much harder for a Socialist president to do than sending in police to threaten workers.

(Leonid Bershisdky is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net