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Taking the Boss Hostage? In France, It’s a Labor Tactic

When negotiations over the revamping of Caterpillar’s operations in the French city of Grenoble broke down this week, the workers did what more and more of their countrymen are doing these days: They took their bosses hostage.

Hostage, Businessman
Hostage, Businessman

It was the fourth such incident in France in the last month.

This week, François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of PPR, the group that owns Gucci, was trapped by a group of employees who surrounded his car and blocked the road with garbage cans.

In two other incidents last month, workers at a 3M plant held their boss for more than 24 hours in a labor dispute, and workers at a Sony plant held their boss overnight to gain better severance packages.

While detaining company executives against their will is not new in France, the tactic has been used only sparingly. But French labor policy experts say they expect more such actions because the despair and anxiety that drive employees to such acts is increasing as the labor market worsens.

“The traditional way of holding a strike is to occupy the workplace, showing that ‘it’s our company, too,’ ” said Antoine Lyon-Caen, a professor of comparative labor law at the University of Paris-Nanterre. “It’s not unheard-of that the managers get taken hostage, but it has been very rare.”

At the root of the wave of recent actions is a sense of injustice as France addresses the economic crisis, according to Jean Kaspar, a former miner and union official who now consults on labor relations. The government has set aside 26 billion euros ($35 billion) for big companies, he said, but less than 3 billion euros for consumers.

“Ordinary people cannot understand how bosses are getting bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of the population is worried about their jobs,” Mr. Kaspar said. “That has caused a certain radicalization of the social base.”

So far, no one has been hurt in the “séquestrations,” as the French refer to the hostage-taking. The unions, and most French people, have refused to condemn the actions, saying it is understandable, if not defensible, that people faced with the loss of their livelihoods would take such risks.

At Caterpillar, the company executives, including Nicolas Polutnik, the chief executive of Caterpillar France, were subjected to a night of pounding revolutionary rock music and threats shouted by workers, said Eric Amstutz, a spokesman in Geneva for Caterpillar’s European operations. Union members took the action after an announcement of 700 job cuts.

The executives were released after President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to meet with union leaders and save the site.

In Mr. Pinault’s case, he had just met with workers’ representatives to discuss revamping the company’s furniture stores and its electronics retailer. He was rescued by the riot police after he had endured nearly an hour of verbal abuse.

The employees have not acted without sympathy. At Caterpillar, they released one executive who was sick, and at 3M, they brought the executive mussels and French fries.