French boss kidnaps herself to keep her job

John Lichfield
Wednesday 17 March 2010 01:00
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The chief of all French chefs, Christine Pujol, has kidnapped herself. In recent months French workers have frequently taken their bosses hostage in an attempt to save their jobs. Ms Pujol, the boss of the main association of French restaurateurs, has reversed the recipe.

For the last six days, she has barricaded herself inside her office in Paris to prevent her members from firing her. Ms Pujol, 61, part of a family which owns hotels and restaurants in the southern town of Carcassonne, winches bags of food up to her third-floor office on the end of a severed television cable.

She sleeps on bedding in the corner of the room and passes her time doing physical exercises and talking to the press and sympathisers on her mobile phone. The emergency congress of the Union des Métiers et des Industries de L'Hôtellerie (UMIH) which dismissed her in November, was called illegally, she claims. "I don't want to over-dramatise or seem ridiculous," she said. "But the justice system refuses to respond to the violation of my rights."

The UMIH has 80,000 members, ranging from corner cafés to prestigious hotels and restaurants. On Monday the union voted by an 80 per cent majority to replace Ms Pujol with Roland Héguy, a restaurant-owner from Biarritz.

"This is a case for a psychiatrist," said a senior member of the union. "She has taken herself hostage."

Behind the personal animosities, there lies the frustration of many restaurant owners at what they see as the union's bungling of the issue of VAT on restaurant meals.

After a long campaign led by the UMIH, the European Commission and the French government agreed last year that the tax on sit-down meals could be cut from 19.6 per cent to 5.5 per cent. The government let it be known that it expected the €2.4bn (£2.2bn) tax savings to be passed on to customers or – at the very least – used to hire more restaurant staff.

To the anger of taxpayers, however, most French restaurants have yet to reduce the cost of their meals, and it remains unclear how many have taken on additional employees.

Many UMIH members accuse Ms Pujol of being authoritarian and, above all, of bungling public relations. For many small restaurants, they say, the VAT cut was needed just to survive the downturn, but this message was not properly explained to the public.

The UMIH has taken legal steps to try to expel Ms Pujol from her office. Ms Pujol has filed a counter-claim for "harassment". "I haven't pinched any money from the till," she said. "I haven't killed anybody. I am not, as they claim, a danger to the union."

The siege goes on...

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