Bossnapped! (It's French for industrial action)

French executives are being held hostage by their workers as the global recession results in closures and job losses. So why is President Sarkozy so relaxed about this radical new tactic? John Lichfield reports

One of the world's wealthiest men spent an hour stuck in a taxi the other night, negotiating under duress with 50 furious employees who had blocked a Paris street with dustbins and banners. François-Henri Pinault, the boss of Christie's, Printemps and FNAC, was eventually freed by police after promising that the workers – threatened with job losses – could send a delegation to a board meeting.

He got off lightly. Four executives at a Caterpillar plant in the French Alps were forced to spend the night on the carpets of their offices – the third example of a "bossnapping" in France in the past two weeks. The American heavy-plant manufacturer, stricken by lost orders because of the global recession, plans to cut 700 jobs in France. The French executives were freed after promising to pay the workers for their three days on strike and following a pledge by President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would "save" their factory.

In France, sleeping with the boss is taking on a whole new meaning. The "sequestration", or temporary kidnapping of executives, has been an occasional tactic in French industrial disputes for two decades. Never before, however, have there been so many examples in such a short time of incidents which in another country might might attract headlines screaming of "hostage-taking" or "industrial terrorism".

The ambush of M.Pinault's taxi in the 15th arrondissement on Tuesday night scarcely warranted a mention in the French newspapers yesterday. M. Pinault wound down his window a few centimetres and calmly talked to the protesters, whose jobs are threatened by plans to close down one of the FNAC superstores in the Bastille area of the capital. A giant banner that read "Shareholders get Euros 420m. FNAC employees lose 400 jobs" blocked the street.

As the recession starts to bite across the Channel, politicians and commentators are watching the wave of bossnappings with a mixture of tolerance, amusement and growing anxiety. In a country where politics is often conducted on the street, does this wave of direct action against allegedly "anti-social" or "thuggish" bosses presage the kind of wider protests which have sometimes shaken France in the past?

M. Sarkozy is reported to be desperately worried that the recession could provoke a "spring of discontent", comparable to the events of May 1968. His fears partially explain why he felt the need to adopt a theatrically hard line in favour of the "moralisation" of capitalism before this week's G20 summit.

There have also been mini-riots outside closure-threatened factories in recent weeks, with effigies of bosses burned and riot police pelted with eggs and sticks. In January, the employees of a battery factory at Auxerre in Burgundy seized their chief executive and paraded him, wearing a union T-shirt, at a street demonstration against the recession and President Sarkozy's response to it. Unlike all the other victims of such incidents, the boss, Alain Royer, has decided to press charges.

The Sarkozy government's reaction to such events has been deliberately tame, even sympathetic. One can imagine how such tactics might have been greeted by, say, Mrs Thatcher at the height of the early 1980s recession in the UK. President Sarkozy fears (with some justification) that one small incident – one striker injured in a police action to free a kidnapped boss – might be all that a resurgent far left needs to mobilise wider, more violent protests.

Commenting on the "sequestrations", the junior minister for family affairs, Nadine Morano, sounded this week as if she was reasoning with a four-year-old. "This is not at all the correct solution," she murmured. "Even though I can understand the distress of those involved." In a radio interview yesterday, M. Sarkozy did not bother to criticise the Caterpillar "kidnappers" in Grenoble at all. He promised that he would intervene directly to "save" their factory.

Admittedly, there is an element of polite ritual in the seizure of bosses in France. Only the lightest of violence and compulsion is generally involved. In one recent incident, at the US-owned 3M pharmaceutical factory at Pithiviers, south of Paris, the chief executive locked himself into his own office when he saw the mood turning ugly. He was barricaded in there overnight by his staff but they took the trouble to bring him a meal of mussels and chips.

In none of the recent incidents have jobs been saved or factory closures reversed. In all of them, however, the workers have won something: such as an agreement to re-open frozen negotiations at a Sony factory south of Bordeaux two weeks ago. The protesters, who had taken the chief executive of Sony France hostage overnight, won improved redundancy and retraining terms.

From abroad, this wave of anger and militancy might appear to be further evidence of the strength of French trade unions. In truth, it is further evidence of how weak and fractured the French union movement is and how poor relations have become between workers and bosses, especially in the private sector.

Only nine per cent of French employees belong to a union – far less in the private sector where all the recent "kidnapping" incidents have occurred. (In the UK, the figure is 29 per cent; in Sweden more than 80).

Instead of one trade union federation, France has eight competing alliances with differing political agendas or none. The result, say experts on the French social landscape, is a state of permanent tension and suspicion between workers and employees and the temptation for local trade union officials to take extreme measures to "compete" with their rivals.

The recent actions have won widespread sympathy in France, however. Jean-Michel Denis, a researcher at the French labour study centre, said there was a broad feeling – not just among the habitually militant – that the global recession and the government's economic reforms were hurting millions of people but leaving a privileged minority untouched. The juxtaposition of job losses with constant news of bonuses and "golden parachutes" for failed bosses, not to mention the impact of Sarkozy-introduced tax concessions for the wealthy, have created a deep well of "exasperation" and anger. "The fact that people believe that the pain is not being shared evenly explains why tempers fray so quickly," he said.

Up to now, the French "bossnappings" have been isolated events. There has been no sign of a long-running dispute spilling over into wider unrest. A series of one-day strikes and protest marches organised by the unions has so far "channelled" the discontent of the French. Another march is planned for 1 May.

The problem is that M. Sarkozy has ruled out the extra public spending and wage rises the unions are demanding. The more moderate union leaders cannot keep marching their supporters up and down, without risking a hijacking of their protest movement by the political extremes. "If the government fails to respond to the anger and fears of the millions of people who have marched already, there is a great risk of a radicalisation of the protests," M. Pernot said.

In other words, the ritual wave of sleeping with the boss may yet be a prelude to something much more threatening and ill-tempered.

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