Oil giant total is France's biggest company, which means it's also its most hated. It ranked last in a recent poll of France's most popular companies. Its announcement in February that it made a record €13.9 billion ($19.8 billion) profit in 2008 sparked cries of obscenity and a national debate on what good deeds it should perform with its windfall. When it said it would cut 555 jobs at an obsolete French plant, critics howled. It didn't matter that there'd be no outright job losses, or that new investment promised 3,000 new jobs by 2012.
As world leaders cast envious eyes to France's model during this crisis, the French, prone to profit-leery populism in the best of times, are digging in. Take the recent spate of "bossnappings." Laid-off workers at foreign firms including Sony, Caterpillar and 3M held execs hostage to score better severance packages. Pols chewed over whether to side with the workers, hardly sparing a thought for the bosses, let alone the fate of foreign investment. Even center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, who's pledged to improve negative French attitudes toward work and money, at times veers wildly left. His idea that firms should share profits equally among reinvestment, shareholders and employees left economists reeling, and was promptly scrapped. As for Total, disasters like a 1999 tanker spill and a 2001 chemical-plant explosion haven't helped. But with new management aiming to remake Total's image, it might find that in France, it can only win by losing.