Vive la Revolution?
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.
"In the '70s, those movements were backed by a political offer on the left that included a program of nationalizations, planned economy and self-management, i.e., a break with market economy," says Guy Groux, an expert on labor relations at the Center for Political Research here in Paris. "Today there is no political alternative; workers are just trying to bargain over layoffs and severance pay."
Antoine Lyon-Caen, a professor of comparative labor law at the University of Nanterre, the birthplace of the student movement in 1968, sees the sequestrations as a telling metaphor. "It's a way to oblige the employers to actually face their employees, to look them in the eyes. There is no escape," Lyon-Caen said. "It so happens that capitalism is on the run right now, and so it is a way to oblige its representatives to see the reality it has wrought."
The outcry over the excesses of financial capitalism has even reached private-sector employees, including at the managerial level. "This is new," according to Jean-François Bolzinger, a senior official with the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), a leading union that was for decades affiliated with the Communist Party. "We are seeing management people inform us about what companies intend to do, especially when it comes to moving factories abroad. Just imagine, those guys are talking to the CGT!"
Jean Kaspar, who started working as an electrical mechanic in a potassium mine at 14, vividly remembers the couple of hours, back in the 1970s, during which he and his comrades locked the factory boss in his office "because he did not want to discuss." Kaspar, who eventually became the head of the leading French Democratic Labor Confederation (CFDT) trade union in the late '80s, notes that the current "withholdings" are undertaken mostly by low-skilled and aging workers in areas suffering from high unemployment--in other words, people for whom finding another job is unlikely and going on strike not much of an option because they are stretched financially.
For Kaspar, who heads a consulting firm specializing in labor issues, the incidents illustrate the breakdown of social dialogue in many companies. "Worker reps should be associated early on with the decision-making process rather than asked to swallow orders and try to mediate their consequences," he said. Moreover, the contrast between the litany of layoff plans and the daily revelations about inflated bonuses and golden parachutes has added fuel to the fire. So has Sarkozy's refusal to budge on some of the free-market policies he put in place. The most symbolic is the so-called fiscal shield, which limits the level of taxation to 50 percent. Sarkozy has for now brushed off calls, even from his own camp, to repeal or amend this measure, which clearly favors the wealthy.
Sarkozy counters that the crisis is a US import and that France's vaunted social safety net has helped the country fare better than its neighbors. And he knows that unlike the massive strikes and demonstrations in 1995, 2003 and 2006, which were focused on specific issues (retirements, job programs), the current street mobilizations have no clear objective and thus pose no threat. He is pinning his hopes on a quick end to the recession and on major trade unions channeling the discontent in an orderly way.
"Sarkozy is playing for time and is betting that people will get tired of the social protests, just like Maggie Thatcher did in the 1980s," says Isabelle Sommier, a sociology professor at the Sorbonne. "But this is a very risky strategy, because we are sitting on a volcano."