Europe

Why bossnappings and France are like baguette and brie

January 8, 2014: 10:47 AM ET

Holding your boss captive is illegal and punishable by law in France. So why does it keep happening? For one, it seems to be effective for French workers.

Bernard Glesser (right), human resources director of the Goodyear tire factory of Amiens, and the factory's head of production Michel Dheilly (center) are escorted by the police after being released.

Bernard Glesser (right), human resources director of the Goodyear tire factory of Amiens, and the factory's head of production Michel Dheilly (center) are escorted by local police after being released.

FORTUNE -- Only in their most devious daydreams have most U.S. workers considered kidnapping their bosses. But what seems outlandish to our naïve American consciences is something that's actually been done in France ... more than once.

In the most recent incident, 200 workers at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (GT) plant in Amiens, France took two executives hostage Monday by keeping them from leaving the facility. The so-called bossnapping was in response to Goodyear's plans to close the factory and leave some 1,200 workers jobless.

Last year, the French government had tried to broker a deal in which Quincy, Ill.-based Titan International Inc. would invest in the factory, but it fell through when Titan's chairman, Maurice Taylor, insulted the country's labor laws and its work habits. A representative of the Goodyear workers, many of whom are members of the CGT union, told French radio station RTL that they were holding the managers hostage to demand that Goodyear revisit the negotiating table to seek a "voluntary departure plan" and to see if any other company is interested in taking over the factory. Should those options fall through, the workers said they would request a departure plan worth "an enormous amount of money." After 30 hours of captivity, the Goodyear managers were freed Tuesday when police officers intervened. Goodyear spokesperson Paolo Ghilardi said the company is relieved that its representatives had been released. He declined to comment on whether the standoff would alter the company's plans to shutter the plant.

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Bossnapping had its big moment in France in 2009, when the recession prompted mass layoffs and skyrocketing unemployment. That year, the manager of a 3M (MMM) factory in Pithiviers was held over a severance pay dispute. Four Caterpillar (CAT) execs were taken hostage for 24 hours in 2009 to protest layoffs at the company's plant in Grenoble. And that same year, Sony (SNE) workers protesting a factory closing held the head of the company's France division and a human resources representative inside the facility by barricading the exit with tree trunks.

Bossnapping is illegal and punishable by law in France. So why does it keep happening?

For starters, sometimes it's rather effective. Following the Caterpillar bossnapping, the company increased its severance package, and the 3M workers, after voluntarily releasing their bosses, eventually won their demands in court.

But there's more.

"This is [France's] version of civil disobedience," says Lowell Turner, director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University, and the tactic, he says, gets a tremendous amount of public support. That makes sense, considering how well bossnappings fit into France's long history of civil defiance, which dates back to the French Revolution, says Turner, who studies labor in Europe and the U.S. In the ongoing battle between workers and large multinational corporations, French people's social and political instincts lead them to side with the workers, he says. "[There's] more of a sense in France and Europe that companies have social responsibility," he says. So, in the eyes of the French, "if it doesn't make sense to keep a factory open, the company has the responsibility to sell it or arrange for another deal to preserve those jobs."

Given the public's endorsement of such acts, it's not surprising that kidnappers of business managers and execs are rarely -- if ever -- punished.

The episodes often lead to settlements that offer workers amnesty, Turner says. That, or the government, which formally denounces bossnappings, will simply look the other way. In the Goodyear case, for instance, it was the local police that interfered, not the French government. "If that happened here, they'd send in the National Guard," he says.

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In one of the few instances in which a French worker received punishment for his civil disobedience against a company, José Bové, a farmer and activist who in 1999 helped dismantle the construction site of a new McDonald's (MCD), gained hero status and became a martyr for disgruntled workers. At his trial, an estimated 40,000 people showed up in support of his cause.

To be sure, bossnappings have taken place in other countries. Workers in China, for instance, held the co-owner of U.S. company Specialty Medical Supplies for five days in June over a severance pay dispute. But nowhere do they seem more prevalent than in France, where revolutionary ideals still run deep.

Luckily for the bosses, Turner says, "they put the guillotine away a long time ago."

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