They do things differently in France

They do things differently in France. Take labor disputes, for instance. During the month of March there were four different hostage-takings – or, as the French call them, sequestrations – of managers by employees.

For Sony, workers at one French plant held their boss hostage overnight in an attempt to reopen negotiations on severance packages paid to employees who were being laid off. At 3M, several managers were held for two days in a similar dispute; likewise at Caterpillar. Late in the month, employees surrounded and blocked a car occupied by Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of PPR (the group that owns Gucci and other stores) in a dispute over store closings. Each incident ended peacefully when employers agreed to negotiate with employees.

While this tactic is unheard of in the U.S., where workers tend to parade outside an employer’s facility while peacefully holding signs, it is not new in France. “The traditional way of holding a strike is to occupy the workplace, showing that ‘it’s our company, too,’” said Antoine Lyon-Caen, law professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre in a recent New York Times report. He added that although hostage-taking is rare, it’s not unheard of.

Neither the unions nor the general public condemned these actions. Workers in France, like those in the U.S., are fed up with the government bailing out banks and large corporations while workers continue to lose their jobs. Desperation leads the workers to take risks. After losing their livelihood, what is left? (Existentialism started in France, by the way.) During the first quarter of 2009 the U.S. lost 2 million jobs. But U.S. workers remain relatively quiet.

What’s the difference? Are we in the U.S. more stoic? Do the French have a gene for wanting to control their destiny? There must be something. They eat all those buttery sauces and pastries and never seem to get fat. I just look at a dish of mousse au chocolat and I gain weight.

Each event ended quietly. In the case of Mr. Pinault, he was rescued by riot police after being trapped in his car and yelled at for an hour. At Caterpillar, after 700 job cuts were announced, the “sequestered” managers were bombarded by the pounding of revolutionary rock music while workers shouted threats. But workers had earlier released one hostage who suffered from a heart condition.

And at 3M, workers brought their hostage a dinner of mussels and French fries. Yep, they do things differently in France.