- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

PARIS | Proud of their revolutionary heritage, the French have found a creative way to vent their wrath at the economic crisis and the business establishment they blame. They are locking up their bosses.

In recent weeks, disgruntled workers have confined managers and proprietors at a half-dozen plants across the country to protest the shrinking economy and rising unemployment.

On Thursday, about 125 employees of FM Logistic in northeastern France barged into a meeting and took five managers hostage.

As evening approached, they let go two female executives with small children and kept the other three. Workers said they are angry after a year of fruitless restructuring talks.

In many cases, boss-napping has paid off.

Last week, factory workers in southeastern France released three executives from the British-owned adhesives factory Scapa after management reportedly agreed on a $2.5 million severance package for several dozen laid-off staff members.

“We kept them, but they ate well. It was pleasant,” Christophe Bougret, a member of the CGT trade union, told Le Point weekly. Other reports quoting the executives described a hostage experience that was not so merry.

The boss-nappings have drawn a sharp response from French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“What is this business of sequestering people?” he asked in a recent speech. “We have the rule of law, and I will not let matters go on like that.”

Still, many French appear to support or at least understand the sequestrations. A survey by the CSA polling agency found that 45 percent of French think the practice is acceptable. An IFOP poll found that 30 percent of those surveyed backed boss-nappings, while more than 60 percent understood them. Only 7 percent condemned the practice.

“You have to put this in context of the crisis of factory shutdowns, the strong hike in unemployment that we have witnessed these last months,” along with reports of golden parachutes and executive bonuses that have enraged many French, said Jerome Fourquet, deputy director of public opinion studies at IFOP.

Strolling in downtown Paris on a sunny spring evening, one resident who would give only his first name, Thomas, said he fell into the “understand but disapprove” category on the boss holdups.

“Violence sparks violence,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, many French have not read Gandhi,” the legendary Indian independence leader who preached and practiced nonviolent protest.

Emanuel Miranda, 22, was even less sympathetic. “I have a more American approach. I don’t think kidnappings are the right solution. Businesses don’t really have a choice about this economic crisis,” said Mr. Miranda, who said he has been hunting fruitlessly for a job.

The boss-nappings are the latest twist in a proud French tradition of protest that includes the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

This year, anger over the government’s handling of the economic meltdown sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in nationwide protests in January and March.

Teachers and high school students have demonstrated separately against education cuts, while university students have launched sit-ins and other protests against reforms in higher education. Indeed, a tongue-in-cheek art exhibit at the European Union’s offices in Brussels this year posted an “on strike” label on a map of France.

“Every nation has its characteristics,” one French taxi driver said. “If we don’t protest, the government will not listen to us.”

As elsewhere in Europe, France has been hit hard by the economic crisis, particularly in the auto sector. The unemployment rate is more than 8 percent, the highest level in two years. Nearly 170,000 people lost their jobs in January and February alone.

The cuisine-loving French are frequenting restaurants less often and swapping pricey items, such as seafood, for tripe (cooked cow stomach) and other low-cost staples.

On April 10, Mr. Sarkozy launched a social support fund to retrain laid-off workers. Some in the private sector, including foreign companies that have experienced boss-nappings, also are responding.

U.S. construction equipment firm Caterpillar Inc., which announced this year that it was shedding 22,000 jobs worldwide, including 700 in France, agreed to reopen compensation talks for laid-off workers in Grenoble after employees held three of its managers for 24 hours.

Ditto for Sony, whose French workers won a commitment from the company to add $17 million to a layoff package after workers held the chief executive overnight.

Despite Mr. Sarkozy’s warning, boss-nappings show no sign of ending.

The boss-nappings Thursday at FM Logistic in the town of Woippy were triggered by a company plan to eliminate 475 jobs by May 2010, partly because of a decision by top PC-maker Hewlett-Packard Co. to shift FM Logistic’s printer packaging activities to Malaysia, Reuters news agency reported.

Company press officer Catherine Bailly downplayed the peril for the captive bosses.

“Let’s describe things as they really are. They are being held inside rather than kidnapped. They are continuing to speak to each other,” Ms. Bailly told Reuters.

• Elizabeth Bryant can be reached at ebryant@washingtontimes.com.

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