Why the French Resort to Bossnapping

There may be plenty of good reasons to be angry at your boss these days. But few express that frustration quite like the French. Over the past several weeks factory workers facing pay cuts and layoffs at some of the world's biggest companies have barricaded executives and human-resources directors in their offices and held them captive for as many as 36 hours at a time. At the Sony France factory in southwest France, angry employees reportedly blocked the plant door with branches and tree trunks and held the bosses overnight until adjourning to a police station for further negotiation. In another so-called bossnapping, four dozen employees of a Caterpillar plant in Grenoble held four executives for 24 hours, allegedly confiscated their cell phones and made threatening calls to their families.

The tactics are working. The penalty for holding your boss hostage is five years in jail, but authorities have yet to prosecute a case. Most companies haven't even pressed charges against the perpetrators. In fact, the companies targeted have yielded new concessions like larger severance packages. Popular sentiment is behind the bossnappers, too. In one poll, 55 percent of those surveyed said "social action that is radical, even violent like factory or road blockades, even sequestering executives or bosses," is "justified." Almost two thirds said these methods shouldn't be punished because "they are often the only means employees have of being heard."

This uniquely French phenomenon is largely the result of the unusual structure of the country's labor unions. Decades ago the French government granted a handful of unions lucrative powers, such as the authority to administer pension programs, as well as the right to negotiate on behalf of French workers in both the public and private sectors. Ever since, the unions have remained financially stable without large numbers of dues payers, and with the benefits of membership accruing even to nonmembers, workers have had little incentive to join. So, contrary to popular belief, France is now the least unionized country in the developed world, with just 8 percent of workers paying dues, compared with 11.6 percent in the U.S. and 28 percent in the U.K., the supposed bastions of antiunion capitalism. As a result, the union membership tends to be composed of the most radical workers, among whom aggressive forms of protest are nearly always in mind. Moreover, there is little history of collective bargaining in France and the unions compete viciously with one another, attempting to compensate for their low numbers with ever-more-spectacular forms of protest.

French workers are all too happy to join in. And unlike leaders of many countries, French politicians listen to their demands. "Somewhere at the back of their mind is the picture of that guillotine and the power of the street," says John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. "On the other side there are the French people themselves. Their attitude is, 'We don't take these things lying down; we do something. You know, we may go and park our combine harvesters on the Boulevard Périphérique for a couple of days, and get our deck chairs out in the summer and see what somebody does'."

Bossnappings were prevalent in the 1970s, when the three-decade postwar boom was interrupted by the oil shocks and an economic downturn. The strategy subsided over time, but a taste for protest yielded the kind of spectacular strikes that would hamstring the country for weeks at a time. Finally, French President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced new laws that would guarantee a minimum level of service in the event of a strike in areas like mass transit and child care—a move that helped turn strikes into an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe. "When there's a strike today, nobody notices," he boasted.

The remark, while largely true, raised the bar for the unions' attempts to gain attention. By the time the economic crisis rolled around last year, it was hardly surprising that bossnappings would reemerge. Now more reform is on the way. Last August Parliament passed a bill that would link the unions' power to negotiate to the results of company-level elections, which is likely to favor moderates and be a watershed once it kicks in about five years from now. Meantime, the revolutionaries will be manning the ramparts—and bosses might want to pack a toothbrush.

With Stryker McGuire in London