In April 1968 workers at a factory of Sud Aviation in Nantes, France, began a strike to protest the decision by the company to cut their hours and wages. A month later, they decided to lock themselves–and their boss–inside the plant. They were soon joined by leftist students, a turning point that transformed a series of youth protests into a nationwide social movement that nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle.
Four decades later, de Gaulle’s heir, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is facing massive street demonstrations, a rash of “boss-nappings” and the resurgence of the far left. To be sure, no new French revolution is in sight. But Sarkozy, whose popularity has eroded sharply since his election in May 2007, has warned of France’s “eruptive” nature and is careful to remind his fellow citizens constantly that the main culprits of the economic meltdown are Wall Street, greedy bosses and tax havens–not him.
His concern is not so much the two massive one-day demonstrations, in January and March, against the crisis. Or that for the first time since World War II, all major trade unions will march together instead of separately during the May 1 Labor Day celebration. Rather, for someone who won the presidency two years ago on a law-and-order platform, the resurgence of radical actions is far more unsettling. On March 12, the CEO of Sony France was held by workers in a plant that was about to close; he was released the next day after agreeing to pay more generous severance packages. Since then, employees of a 3M pharmaceutical factory held an executive overnight after layoffs were announced for nearly half of them. In addition, three British executives in a Scapa Group adhesive-tape plant; the bosses at Faure et Machet, a printer plant that lost its contract with Hewlett-Packard; and two managers at the US car equipment plant Molex have been “sequestered,” according to the authorities–“withheld” in trade-union parlance. At the US-owned Caterpillar plant near Grenoble, workers protesting a plan to sack more than 700 of them blocked the entrance for four days, until they were granted a meeting at the Ministry of the Economy.
Most of those actions have targeted local executives who have little say on the global strategy of the large companies they work for. The only instance of a highflying executive being forced to face the wrath of his underlings was the time luxury-brand magnate François-Henri Pinault’s car was briefly surrounded by salesclerks angry about layoffs in his stores, an incident captured by TV cameras.
Sarkozy has strongly criticized such actions as unlawful, although the authorities have refrained from prosecuting the perpetrators. The reason is simple: at least half the French public supports or understands these tactics, according to the polls. But whereas holding executives, invading facilities and violent scuffles between workers and the police were routine from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s, today’s rerun is far more limited–in scope and in meaning.