Is the 'boss-napping' story overblown?

PARIS — By the end of May, more than 700 employees of Caterpillar France will have received their termination notices. It will close a turbulent chapter in the U.S. company's French operations, which gained notoriety for a "boss-napping" incident.

Earlier this year, French workers facing layoffs started detaining executives as a bargaining tactic of last resort. At Caterpillar and other companies, workers held the managers captive to protest plant closures or demand better severance packages.

At first, neither the companies nor the government moved to stop the boss-nappings. But as their frequency increased, the government started taking a firmer tone against the practice. Detained managers also began seeking legal remedies over the sequestrations.

“We are in a state of laws,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters last month at the height of the media-driven frenzy. “The government will not accept the taking of hostages, whether they are bosses or any other person in charge.”

When asked how specifically the government planned to address the matter, Fillon replied that it was up to businesses to act if they so chose; the government would not interfere in their stead.

Four executives at Caterpillar, detained for 24 hours in late March, acted by filing a criminal complaint almost a month after their seizures. Jim Dugan, a spokesman at the Peoria, Ill.-based construction equipment manufacturer said in statement to GlobalPost that “certain Caterpillar managers (as individuals) rather than the company, filed suit against a certain number of unnamed employees related to the sequestration. Beyond that, we would not plan to discuss this legal issue.”

He continued: “As it relates to the status of the social plan, we have been following the prescribed process and we are moving toward our plan of reducing the workforce by 733 in order to bring production levels in line with demand.”

Some employees have filed a complaint of their own against the Caterpillar managers, claiming they were slandered, according to Nicolas Benoit, a representative of the CGT national trade union. The employees say they were called “hooligans” and “violent.”

“We are not violent people; we’re mothers and fathers who were fired, who wanted to defend our jobs,” Benoit said, when reached by telephone. “Caterpillar never wanted to hear that.”

Benoit said the managers’ suit was without merit given that they barricaded themselves in their offices because they didn’t want to face waiting employees and the press. He also said Caterpillar bosses refused to consider options that might have salvaged jobs at the southeastern factories in Grenoble and Echirolles, such as half-time work or allowing older workers to voluntarily retire early.

The incidents also stirred a fiery debate between and within the country’s leading political parties.

Segolene Royal, the former Socialist party candidate for president, was accused of “adding fuel to the fire” when she defended the workers’ actions even while maintaining that it was illegal to deprive someone of his freedom. The penalty for abduction in France is a five-year prison sentence and a 75,000-euro ($101,000) fine.

“No one brutalized or humiliated them,” Royal said when asked about the Caterpillar executives in an interview last month in the weekly Journal du Dimanche. Those who are weakened, trampled, and scorned are the workers who are lied to before they are kicked out the door.”

While members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) criticized her sympathetic stance toward the disgruntled workers, former UMP Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin defended Royal. Appearing on a morning television program on April 6, de Villepin said he did not think she was advocating violence against executives, as some had suggested, but explained that, “This violence is on track because there is desperation and there is a frustration.”

President Sarkozy weighed in on the debate too, acknowledging that some bosses had indeed behaved in an unacceptable manner but the “vast majority of executives are also suffering from the financial crisis.”

“What is this about going and holding people hostage?” Sarkozy asked rhetorically. “I will not allow things like that to happen.” He continued: “One can understand people’s anger, but their anger will subside with answers and results, not by worsening matters with actions that are against the law.”

In addition to Caterpillar, the list of companies facing similarly contentious labor disputes includes a Sony plant; 3M; Scapa, a British adhesives factory; and Continental, a German auto-parts manufacturer. Bosses at Molex in southwest France, were held for two days over plans to close their plant and outsource about 300 jobs. They were released after officials filed a complaint to end the seizures. Susan Armitage, a spokeswoman at the headquarters in Lisle, Ill. declined to comment on the matter citing the ongoing negotiations.

Guy Groux, a political researcher at the Paris university Sciences Po who studies labor matters, said the country’s largest employers’ union, Medef, might be concerned that the incidents are tarnishing France’s corporate image but he underscored that the incidents remained scant. He estimated that less than 10,000 people total were affected at half a dozen companies out of a private sector work force of about 16 million people.

He likened the frenzy to a shooting rampage in the U.S. that would have people erroneously conclude that “the United States was a Western from the 19th century.”

Obviously, “not all Americans carry a gun,” he said.